Saturday, May 02, 2015

Symphony Review: A mostly French St. Louis Symphony program highlights principal players

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Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson
What: Music of Bizet, Debussy, Elgar, and Ravel
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: May 1-3, 2015

[Find out more about the music with the SLSO program notes and my symphony preview.]

Allegra Lilly
This is a big weekend for the Principal and Associate Principal players in the St. Louis Symphony (and even a couple of guests). The concerts begin with an orchestral suite from Bizet's massively popular 1875 opera "Carmen" and end with Ravel's even more massively popular "Bolero"—both works packed with solos for individual instruments.

In between are pieces that feature SLSO musicians not often seen in the solo spot: Principal Harp Allegra Lilly in Debussy's 1904 "Danses sacrée et profane" ("Sacred and Profane Dances") for harp and strings, and Principal Tuba Michael Sanders in Vaughan Williams' 1954 "Tuba Concerto in F minor."

For people like me who enjoy seeing members of the band step forward and strut their stuff, it's all very gratifying.

The "Carmen" selections consist of eleven of the twelve sections of the two suites that Bizet's friend and fellow composer Ernest Guiraud put together in the 1880s. Bizet never heard them—he died shortly after "Carmen" opened to tepid reviews and public apathy in 1875—but I think he would have appreciated the way his colleague reassigned the original vocal lines to a wide range of individual instruments. The trumpet, in particular, carries a lot of the weight, with prominent roles in the "Habañera," "Seguedille," "La Garde montante," and most notably, the famous (and often parodied) "Chanson du Toréador."

Mr. Robertson's rearrangement of the order of the selections made me hear this music in a very different way. Having the brisk march of "Les Toréadors" segue immediately into the ominous Act I "Prelude," for example, created a nice bit of dramatic contrast. Ditto putting the delicate "Intermezzo," with its lovely duet for harp and flute, in between the "Chanson du Toréador" and the lively "Danse bohème." His interpretation brought out all the drama and high spirits of the opera, ending with a "Danse bohème" that burned up the stage.

A few fluffs here and there not withstanding, the musicians with the solo spots performed brilliantly. Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik had the most to do, of course, but there were also terrific moments from Principal Flute Mark Sparks, Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks, Associate Principal Bassoon Andy Gott along with fellow bassoonist Felicia Foland, Principal Piccolo Ann Choomack along with second piccolo Jennifer Nichtman (doubling on flute), harpist Megan Stout, and Concertmaster David Halen. Mr. Halen's solo in the "Nocturne" starts at the bottom of the violin's range, and brought a dark, silky tone to it.

As the second half of the concert began, Allegra Lilly made a strong impression before she even played a note, gliding onstage in a iridescent blue spaghetti strap gown that was as lovely and elegant as her playing—and that's saying something. Soloists sometimes get lost in the fog of Powell Hall's acoustics, especially for those of us in the Dress Circle, but Ms. Lilliy's harp came through rich and clear, its full-bodied sound assisted by a resonating platform and Debussy's intelligent orchestration, which never allows the string ensemble to overcome the soloist. She and Mr. Robertson gave the music a graceful and sensitive treatment that emphasized the shimmering, shifting colors of this music. I know Debussy disliked the term "impressionism," but for works like this it feels quelle apropos nevertheless.

Michael Sanders
The Vaughan Williams tuba concerto was next, and you couldn't have asked for a more marked contrast from the Debussy. It's a consistently ingratiating and playful piece, with a strong English folk flavor. The composer wrote it with (and for) London Symphony Orchestra Principal Tuba Philip Catelinet—who must have been quite the virtuoso, judging from the difficulty of the solo part. The first and third movement cadenzas, in particular, exploit the instrument's full range, including those growling bottom notes.

Soloist Michael Sanders did very well by the piece Friday morning, dancing with ease through those cadenzas and the rapid passages that begin the final movement. He had an appealingly full, mellow sound at the upper end of his range (which is where most of the part lies), running into difficulty only in those growling bottom tones. As a former low brass guy myself (trombone, euphonium and, yes, Sousaphone) I sympathize.

The concert came to a slam-bang tang of a finish with Ravel’s ever-popular “Bolero.”

What can one say about "Bolero" that hasn't already been said a thousand times? Ravel himself apparently began to view it in somewhat the same way that Rachmaninoff came to view his equally popular “Prelude in C sharp minor”: as a career milestone that eventually became a millstone. At least Ravel wasn’t obliged to perform it everywhere he went. It is, in any case, music that never fails to entertain—and it certainly did on Friday morning.

The individual solos were impeccable, featuring most of the same players from the Bizet. Notable performances were also turned in by Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo and Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews, assisted by Associate Principal Diana Haskell on E-flat clarinet and Tzuying Huang on the rarely-heard bass clarinet. Guests Nathan Nabb and Jeffrey Collins on soprano and tenor sax, respectively, brought a bit of a jazzy feel to their solos, as did Principal Trombone Timothy Myers.

Performances of "Bolero" inevitably remind me of Garrison Keillor's joke that the worst pumpkin pie you'll ever eat isn't that much different from the best pumpkin pie you'll ever eat. It's hard to screw this music up as long as the orchestra's technique is solid. That said, there's no gainsaying that Mr. Robertson brought real visceral excitement to this old warhorse and sent us all home with smiles on our faces. And for that, we were all thankful.

This weekend's program repeats Friday and Saturday (May 1 and 2) at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. The Saturday evening concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio.

Next at Powell Hall: Mr. Robertson conducts the orchestra, chorus and an international roster of soloists in a complete concert performance of Verdi's beloved potboiler "Aida," including special lighting and video design by S. Katy Tucker. Performances are Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., May 7, 9 and 10. Friday night, May 8, at 8 p.m. Mr. Robertson conducts the last of the Whitaker Foundation "Music You Know" programs, with popular classics by (among others) Copland, Elgar, Bizet, Liszt, Vaughan Williams, and Charles Ives. For information on all concerts:

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