Thursday, May 05, 2016

Symphony Review: Cage Match

Shannon Wood at a preview concert
Photo: Maureen Byrne, St. Louis Sympony
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[Note: This article was originally published at Classical Voice North America.]

For the penultimate concerts of the current season, on April 30 and May 1, David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra chose a striking contrast of music old and new, pairing Schubert’s monumental Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”) with William Kraft’s Timpani Concerto No. 2 (“The Grand Encounter”). The Schubert was completed just before the composer’s death in 1828, while Kraft’s concerto was first performed in 2005 and then, in a substantially revised version, in 2007. Even so, they both present significant challenges to performers and audiences alike.

SLSO principal timpani Shannon Wood, the soloist in Kraft’s concerto, has an impressive resume as both performer and composer, and he delivered a bravura performance of this demanding work.

Special mallets used in the performance
Photo: Maureen Byrne, St. Louis Sympony
Unlike many of the timpani concerti that have emerged over the last 50 years or so — Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof, for example, or Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy — Kraft’s work emphasizes the timpani’s melodic role as much as its rhythmic one. It does this, in part, by calling for an unusually large array of 15 tuned drums, arranged in a circular “drum cage” surrounding the soloist and ranging in pitch from a low C below the bass clef to an A above – a span, as Wood pointed out in a pre-concert interview, of nearly three octaves. That extended range is most apparent in the Lento second movement, which exudes the kind of concentrated and somewhat eerie lyricism I associate with the music of Alban Berg, as well as in the unsettled opening of the third movement. But the bottom line is that throughout the work, the soloist is called upon to perform in ways that go above and beyond the usual demands on a timpanist.

Kraft’s concerto, to quote Wood, “stretches the limits of the performer. It’s very athletic, and the range of motion is vast. The work also demands the player to stand while pedaling, which is challenging.” In fact, watching Wood perform, I was struck by how much the work called for the precision and grace of a dancer as well as musical skill. Attired in slacks, shirt, and sneakers, Wood didn’t just play his drums; he virtually danced around that drum cage.

Challenging as the concerto is for the soloist, it can also be a tough nut for the audience to crack. In avoiding the clich├ęs of what, in a 2007 interview, Kraft called the “rat-a-tat, boom-boom music” written for solo percussion since the mid-20th century, the composer has gone to the other extreme and produced a work that, for much of its length, lacks a strong rhythmic pulse and sense of momentum. There are compelling moments, as when the soloist is “trading licks,” jazz-style, with the substantial battery of instruments played by his fellow percussionists. There are even some remarkable solo passages for other instruments, including a virtuoso flutter-tongued flute cadenza leading up to the intense concluding Epilogue. But overall, this work felt episodic and more appealing to the head than the heart.

David Robertson
Photo: Dan Dreyfus, St. Louis Symphony
That said, Robertson and the orchestra did a splendid job with it. Kraft’s score demands a high level of playing from the orchestra as well as the soloist, and the SLSO musicians did not disappoint. Individual lines were clear, the balance with the soloist was excellent, and the percussionists – Will James, John Kasica, Tom Stubbs, and Alan Stewart – skillfully managed a vast variety of instruments. That assortment included an array of gongs, marimba, xylophone, tuned cowbells, and, of course, lots of drums. Peter Henderson also deserves praise for his work on prepared piano.

An obviously leaner orchestra took the stage for the Schubert Ninth, a work that, in its day, was also seen as quite a challenge. Usually referred to as “The Great” to distinguish it from the earlier and less expansive Sixth Symphony, also cast in C major like the Ninth, the last of Schubert’s symphonies was never performed in public during the composer’s lifetime. The premiere didn’t take place until 1839 – 11 years after Schubert’s death – under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn, and even then musicians viewed it as too long and too difficult to play.

They had a point about the length. Clocking in at around 50 minutes, the Ninth would have seemed gargantuan at the time, dwarfed only by Beethoven’s Ninth from four years earlier (1824). Still, it’s hard to hear the Schubert Ninth now and not be completely captivated by the endless flow of irresistible melodies and the rhythmic drive that runs throughout.

Robertson’s tempo choices, while a bit on the stately side at times, nevertheless contributed to a performance that was beautifully proportioned and served to clarify Schubert’s ambitious musical architecture. The solid orchestral playing was highlighted by some especially fine work from the horns, led by principal Roger Kaza. I’m still partial to the “original instrument” approach to music of this period, exemplified by conductors like Sir Roger Norrington and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, but this performance reminded me of the virtues of the “big band” version.

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