Tuesday, March 22, 2011

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra - Live 2011.03.19 Powell Hall, St. Louis, Missouri

Once again I have been honored with an invitation to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's Blogger's Night. I was a fan the first time I ever set foot in Powell Hall, but my appreciation for the SLSO has only deepened with time. Here's the latest:

Event: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carlos Kalmar
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 19 March 2011

1. Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke), composed by Franz Liszt, 1856-61
2. Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1804-07, featuring Arnaldo Cohen on piano
3. Atmosphères, composed by György Ligeti, 1961 
4. Also sprach Zarathustra, op. 30, composed by Richard Strauss, 1896

Arriving early enough to the concert to attend the Pre-Concert Perspectives, I was immediately surprised to see not musical director and primary conductor David Robertson, but another man with what I assumed to be a slightly Germanic accent. Somehow I'd failed to notice that the night's performance featured a guest conductor, Carlos Kalmar. Born in Uruguay to Austrian parents and holding a resume that boasts years of work in Germany, my assumption wasn't too far off – and he could pronounce the German names and titles with an obvious fluency. Anyway, he discussed the works to be performed and explained some of the context, which is quite nice: it's not a bad deal to get a bonus half-hour music history lesson before the main event of the night.

And after another half-hour, after the rest of the attendees found their seats and the musicians tuned up, Kalmar returned to the stage and jumped into Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Based on a licentious scene from the Faust legend in which the devil picks up a fiddle and drives Faust and an entire village into a frenzied, orgiastic dance in the woods, the piece blends serene pastorals of village life and innocent dancing with wild, dramatic leaps across the consciousness. The highlight is clearly the increasingly ecstatic uproar as the end approaches. The triangle rang clearer and higher than I knew the instrument capable of, and then everything else became intense, demanding, scattered, and loud. After a great flourish of the harp and a turn for the mysterious and unknown, several sharp jabs heralded the finish. The devil's tune was over; his task was complete.

Beethoven's rather unloved fourth piano concerto followed. Kalmar had indicated a connection between this piece and Liszt, but I failed to observe it: Arnaldo Cohen's piano was the showpiece, the work has no grounding story or text, and the piece is unfocused and overlong (over half an hour compared to the Waltz's ten or eleven minutes). The concerto begins with a brief twirl on the piano before awkwardly transitioning to the full orchestra. Such a start was apparently highly uncommon in the times of Beethoven, and so I applaud the idea of countering expectations, but the fact remains that it was a strange beginning, perhaps ultimately unfavorably constructed.

Cohen's virtuosity is unquestioned; his performance was solid and strong. The orchestra was similarly in step, but I couldn't help feel that this was simply not as strong of a piece as Beethoven was capable of composing. I wanted to like the trading of parts between piano and orchestra, but I kept wishing for them to truly blend and merge, but they kept their distance and refused to move closer. Every time one began to approach a conclusion, the other took over and brought the piece somewhere else. The piano chased the orchestra but could never catch it. This did occasionally work well: near the end of the first part, the piano ran all up and down the keyboard, and just as the orchestra joined the fray, the piano flitted in and out of the other instruments, defiantly standing independent. That interplay was successful – but little in the second or third sections matched it. The piece seemed to try to go everywhere and yet reach nothing.

After the intermission, Kalmar offered us a unique treat: Ligeti's Atmosphères, followed without pause by Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, both known in the public eye primarily for their inclusion in Stanley Kubrick's epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ligeti's work was the only "modern" piece of the night, and also by far the most abstract, unusual, and experimental. Featuring no discernible melody or rhythm, the work is based on tone clusters and pointed directional ideas. Many segments were quite discordant, others were dark and thick and slow, others were spaced out and spooky. I couldn't help but observe the increased predilection of the audience to cough during this work; was this a sign of disapproval? And during a particularly harsh segment in which the instruments reached the maximal height of their scales, I caught a tacit musician on stage plugging her ears with her fingers.

And as things settled and cleared in a low, sparse moment, suddenly I recognized the first warming notes of Also sprach Zarathustra. The timpanist, as excited and engaged as a orchestra percussionist can be, cast resounding, powerful notes to welcome the dramatic excess of the piece. Bass drum and organ encouraged what was perhaps the loudest I've yet heard the SLSO perform. This is what people think of when they think of "classical music": big, grand, epic, sweeping. Two harpists strumming away. Massive percussion. Dramatic gestures.

And then the piece goes in a different direction entirely. It calms and settles and becomes a complete work totally separate from the relatively brief segment known to the general populace. The work grows and returns to powerful drama just slightly reminiscent of the start, and then recedes again into a smaller affair. It is strong, varied, and beautiful. And as it nears the ultimate conclusion, glockenspiel and chimes ring strong and clear, the music ascends and expands, and the weight becomes so much that it eventually must detonate, leaving a softer, slower, lighter finish.

It felt like a long concert. They fit a lot in, and there wasn't much overlap. The Liszt was perfect – loose yet requiring a dedication proficiency from the musicians – while Beethoven's concerto may ultimately fail even if the performance was solid. Ligeti was an experience, a challenge; but I like to be thrust out of my comfort zone sometimes, to be removed from my own context. I enjoyed the work, because it truly brought something new, and the juxtaposition with Strauss' masterpiece was perfect. A pause was unnecessary, since it was abundantly clear to the audience where one work ended and the other began. And Strauss' work – it was beautiful, powerful, and a wonder to behold in its entirety.

This was a fun night.

Score: B+

Thanks to Eddie, Dale, and my parents.