Monday, November 30, 2015

Symphony Review: Variety is the spice of the St. Louis Symphony's Thanksgiving weekend

Variety was the order of the day Friday night as the St. Louis Symphony livened up the Thanksgiving weekend with classical favorites by Prokofiev and the local premiere of a new contrabass concerto by Chinese composer Tan Dun in a stunning performance by SLSO Principal Double Bass Erik Harris.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview article.]

Erik Harris
Tan Dun is probably best known here in the USA for his film and multimedia work—most notably his score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000—but his musical interests are wide-ranging and heavily weighted toward the theatrical. Some of his earliest works were written for the stage and even his concert pieces often have extra-musical reference points.

In the case of his "Contrabass Concerto: The Wolf" the inspiration was the Chinese novel "Wolf Totem" by Jiang Rong. According to the composer's web site the novel "resonated deeply with Tan Dun’s personal connection and fascination with the spirits of the natural world and the sounds and customs of the ancient cultures along the Silk Road. The symbol of the Mongolian wolf and its life in the grasslands for Tan Dun is a mirror of the human spirit and our relationship to the natural world."

The concerto starts mysteriously with high harmonics in the basses and soft tones from Tibetan singing bowls suggesting a vast, empty landscape. That Largo melancholia introduction soon gives way to an Allegro depicting (to quote the web site again) "the running of the wolves and wild horses across the Mongolian grasslands." An elegiac Andante molto second movement suggests "the loneliness of a young wolf missing its mother; missing the sky and grasslands of its home" while the final Allegro vivace "returns us to the scene of the running horses, heard in the galloping rhythms of the orchestra while the soloist alternates between the lyrical and percussive capabilities of the instrument."

It's all very dramatic—I might even say cinematic—as well as tremendously appealing. As Mr. Harris points out in an interesting video interview with Mr. Robertson that's shown during the stage change preceding the concerto, it also poses some stiff challenges for the soloist, with lots of rapid passages and extended sections calling for bowing and fingering techniques more typical of the Chinese erhu. Mr. Harris, I'm happy to report, appeared to have completely embraced those challenges, delivering a performance that combined impressive technique with artistic sensitivity. Spontaneous applause broke out after the exhilarating first movement and the entire piece got a standing ovation.

Preceding the concerto is Prokofiev's "Symphony No. 1 in D major," op. 25, ("Classical"). One of the composer's most popular works, it takes classical style and gives it a distinctly 20th-century twist, with harmonies and key changes that would probably have astonished Haydn or Mozart. It relies heavily on the strings (especially the violins) to produce an exceptionally light and transparent sound, and the SLSO players did quite well by it. The violins sounded a bit more astringent than they usually do, which worked quite well for this music.

Mr. Robertson, for his part, brought out a wealth of orchestral detail in a superbly balanced and subtly shaded performance. As often as I've heard this music, there were still facets of the score that came through here in ways that I hadn't noticed in the past.

Lara Teeter
The second half of this weekend's concerts opens with a short suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's 1882 opera "The Snow Maiden". The piece is a real rarity—the SLSO hasn't performed it since 1926. Which is rather a shame as it's filled with some vivid music, colorfully evoking the fairy tale world of the opera. The "Dance of the Birds," with its inventive writing for the woodwinds, was especially delightful, especially when played with the kind of precision I heard Friday. Mr. Robertson and his forces brought out all the loopy comedy of the "Coretge," and the concluding "Dance of the Tumblers"—undoubtedly the best-known piece from the opera—was fittingly energetic.

The concerts conclude with another of Prokofiev's greatest hits, the 1936 children's story for narrator and orchestra, "Peter and the Wolf," about a brave lad who outsmarts a nasty predator. The SLSO has taken a variety of approaches to this piece in the past, but this one was perhaps the most remarkable in that it used fanciful watercolor-inspired animation and not one but two narrators: Webster Conservatory acting student Annie Barbour and Webster faculty member Lara Teeter.

A familiar figure from both the local and Broadway stages, Mr. Teeter handled the bulk of the narration in a slightly arch and humorous style, while Ms. Barbour was a bit more straightforward. I thought it worked quite well, especially in combination with Natalie Arco's charming animation, but I'm not sure splitting up the narration added anything much. The orchestral playing was excellent, in any case, with fine work by Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews as the cat, Associate Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan as the bird, and Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks as the unfortunate duck who gets swallowed whole by the wolf.

Next at Powell Hall, Bernard Labadie conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with soloists Lydia Teuscher, soprano; Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Ovenden, tenor; and Philippe Sly, bass-baritone, in Handel's "Messiah." Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., December 3-6. For more information:

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