Monday, October 26, 2015

Symphony Review: Magisterial Beethoven, poetic Schumann, and dynamic Nielsen with Storgårds, Vogt, and the St. Louis Symphony

John Storgårds
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[Learn more about the music with the SLSO program notes and my symphony preview.]

John Storgårds, the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and this past weekend's (October 23and 24, 2015) St. Louis Symphony Orchestra guest conductor, is a big man with a magisterial podium presence. In fact, "magisterial" is how I'd characterize his approach to the Beethoven "Egmont" Overture that opened the program. Tempi were on the slow side and orchestral details were highlighted, which gave the final triumphal pages of the score that much more impact.

If that approach were the only one in Mr. Storgårds's repertory it would make for a monotonous evening but, of course, there's much more to him than that. His expansive gestures clearly grow out of a passionate commitment to and intense concentration on the music itself. He seems willing to go where it leads him, while still putting his own stamp on the interpretation.

Lars Vogt
Photo: Neda Navaee
This was most apparent in the Schumann Piano Concerto that followed the Beethoven. Describing his work on the Concerto in a 1839 letter to his future wife, Clara Wieck, Schumann said that the work would be "a compromise among a symphony, a concerto and a huge sonata. I see I cannot write a concerto for the virtuosos: I must plan something else." That "something else" proved to a work in which the piano is an integral part of the orchestra, rather than set apart from it in the manner of so many of Schumann's contemporaries. The Concerto is more poetic and lyrical than big and dramatic, with a first movement cadenza that grows organically out of the music and a final movement that is more ingratiating than flashy.

In terms of the imaginary characters that Schumann used to illustrate the two sides of his musical personality, the Concerto tends to lean towards the dreamy and introspective Eusebius rather than the more passionate Florestan, although both are clearly present.

Kate Reimann
Mr. Storgårds and soloist Lars Vogt (a conductor himself as well as a noted pianist) followed Schumann's lead with a reading that was more graceful and sentimental than demonstrative. You could hear that most notably in the second movement Intermezzo, with its lovely duet for the soloist and principal cello (enchantingly rendered by Danny Lee), although there was a languor to the first movement as well. It's marked Allegro affetuoso, but in this performance is was more molto affetuoso. That wasn't entirely to my taste, but (as indicated in that letter to Clara) it's justified by the music itself as well as by Schumann's own thoughts on the matter.

The concluding work on the program, Carl Nielsen's "Symphony No. 3, Op. 27," ("Sinfonia espansiva") from 1910-11, is another matter altogether. Like G. B. Shaw, Nielsen believed in a kind of pantheistic "life force" that pervaded all of nature. It shows up in his fourth and fifth symphonies (both written in the shadow of World War I, when the "life force" no doubt appeared to be in danger of extinction) and pervades the third. The symphony opens, as Reneé Spencer Saller vividly writes in her program notes, with "a machine-gun barrage of a single note, A, which sounds 26 times, speeding up as the intensity mounts". From that point on, the "Espansiva" lives up to its name by delivering, in the words of the composer "a certain expansive happiness about being able to participate in the work of life".

It's vital and viscerally compelling stuff, and Mr. Storgårds's interpretation was appropriately electrifying and energizing. The headlong rush of the music came through loud and clear without sacrificing any of the many finer points of Nielsen's score. Spontaneous applause broke out after the Allegro espansiva first movement, and the standing ovation at the end was sincere and well earned.

Jeffrey Heyl
I know I'm beginning to sound like a broken record (remember those?) when I say this but say it I must: the SLSO musicians played beautifully here, as they did throughout the evening. The extended passages for the strings in the Andante pastorale second movement, for example, were a reminder of what great string players we have here. The sound was lush, focused, and just a bit astringent, which felt like an ideal match for the material. The woodwinds distinguished themselves as well all the way through, as did the expanded (five players) horn section.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the "Espansiva" is the use of wordless vocals that lend an otherworldly quality to the second movement. The soloists for these concerts were soprano Kate Reimann and bass-baritone Jeffrey Heyl, both of whom are familiar figures on local opera and concert stages. Their voices blended handsomely in their brief appearance, lending just the right sense of mystery to the music.

Next at Powell Hall: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra presents a showing of the film "Back to the Future," with the Alan Silvestri score performed live by the orchestra, Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., October 30 – November 1. The showings take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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