Sunday, January 24, 2016

Symphony Review, January 22, 2016: A fine romance

Percussionist William James
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This weekend was a busy one for David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony, with regular subscription concerts Friday morning and Saturday night and tonight and a Whitaker Foundation-sponsored "Music You Know" concert Friday night.

Initiated in the fall of 2014, the "Music You Know" mini-series (three concerts per season) features classical "greatest hits": relatively short works, most of which are likely to be familiar to regulars at Powell Hall. As was the case with the previous program in the series, there was also a local premiere—"Girlfriends Medley" by percussion virtuoso Bob Becker—but for the most part the music was tried and true.

Things got off to a galvanizing start with the overture to Smetana's 1865 comic opera "The Bartered Bride." Mr. Robertson adopted a tempo for the opening fugal section that might have been risky for a less disciplined string section, but Concertmaster David Halen and his forces came through with flying colors. Hearing them rip through those scurrying figures with such precision was a dose of sheer musical adrenaline.

The four selections from the incidental music Gabriel Fauré wrote for a 1900 production of Maeterlinck’s elusive and once-popular drama "Pelléas and Mélisande" that followed made for a nice lyrical contrast. The "Prélude" swelled with understated passion. The swirling strings of the "Entr'acte" (depicting Mélisande at her spinning wheel) cast an ethereal spell. The famous "Sicilienne" was a model of elegance, and Mélisande's death scene was profound in its tragic resignation.

The performance featured some fine solo work from (among others), Principal Flute Mark Sparks and Principal Harp Allegra Lilly, along with some fine playing by the double reeds and clarinet.

Bob Becker
The first half came to a big close with a spectacular display of xylophone virtuosity by Principal Percussionist William James in the "Girlfriends Medley." Originally written for percussion ensemble but re-scored here for xylophone and strings, the work is a ragtime-style mashup of three vaudeville-era songs that all have women's names in their titles—"My Little Margie," "Dinah," and one I'm embarrassed to say I didn't recognize. Mr. James's performance was a stunning mix of technical flash and musical elegance. If Fred Astaire had played the xylophone, it would have sounded like this. Mr. James got a well-deserved standing ovation.

The second half of the concert opened with the familiar "Wedding March" from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" incidental music, a complete performance of which is on the SLSO bill next month, followed by the most weighty entry of the evening: the fourth movement "Adagietto" for harp and strings from the work that takes up most of the other concert program this weekend, Mahler's "Symphony No. 5."

As Mr. Robertson reminded us in his prefatory remarks, the movement is generally seen as the composer's musical love letter to his wife Alma and a profound musical statement of the sentiment that the world is a better place for the presence of one's love. But because nothing with Mahler is ever simple, there's also the suggestion, here and there, that love, like everything else human, is mortal and must pass.

The beauty and tragedy of this music was wonderfully conveyed by the orchestra's performance. Mr. Robertson let the music breathe, in accordance with the composer's sehr langsam ("very slowly"), but never allowed it become static (as I've heard happen with some performances). This was real "lump in the throat" material and completely captivating.

The evening came to a jolly conclusion with the second of two suites from Manuel de Falla's ballet "El sombrero de tres picos" ("The Three-Cornered Hat"). Mr. Robertson held the performance up as an example of why he loves to conduct this orchestra, and it was easy to hear why. It was a vibrant, exciting reading and a welcome opportunity for the percussion section to strut their stuff. The English horn solo in the final "Jota" had a nice bite as well. It was a welcome antidote to the cold and wind outside.

As Mr. Robertson pointed out in his remarks from the stage, last night's concert took place on the same date and same day of the week when, seventeen years ago, he made his debut with the SLSO. As if that weren't reason enough to celebrate the date, the soloist for that concert was pianist Orli Shaham, who would later become his wife. It's nice that we all got to help him observe the event with such an exemplary evening of music making.

The St. Louis Symphony begins a West Coast tour this coming week, so their next local appearance won't be until February 5 and 6, when violinist Anthony Marwood will conduct an evening of chamber music by Bach, Dvorák, and Peteris Vasks. For more information:

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