Monday, October 04, 2010

The American Way

Photo © 2009 Hilary Scott

Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
What: Rhapsody in Blue
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: October 1 and 3, 2010

When was the last time you left a St. Louis Symphony concert thinking, “Well, that was fun?” I'm not talking about an outdoor “pops” or special holiday event, but a regular series concert. If you're like me you might have used words like exciting, stimulating, moving, challenging or even that old saw “interesting” – but “fun”? And yet this weekend and Powell Hall fun was definitely being served up in heaping helpings, courtesy of conductor David Robertson, pianist Orli Shaham, and a couple of deceased wise guys named George and Charles.

I refer, of course, to George Gershwin and Charles Ives. They were both in their late 20s when they wrote the works showcased in the concert—Rhapsody in Blue and the Symphony No. 2, respectively. Both were clearly showing off and thumbing their talented noses at the musical establishment when they did so while still paying homage to the traditions represented by that establishment.

The Rhapsody was the first of what would be an increasingly impressive series of Gershwin works to fuse classical discipline with jazzy freedom. Listening to the swagger and panache of the piano part—some of which not yet fully written out when Gershwin first performed the work with Paul Whiteman's band at Aeolian Hall—it's impossible not to picture the composer's jaunty smile (and ever-present cigar) as he effortlessly throws off a riff or run.

This is keyboard work that's visual as well as aural, and Ms. Shaham did it up in fine style, even if she was sometimes swamped by the orchestra. Balance is one of the many reasons I prefer the original jazz band arrangement of the Rhapsody to Ferde Grofé's 1937 full-orchestra version. I understand why most classical orchestras use that one as it was the only one available until around 1971 and most musicians probably know it well, but it would nice now and then to get back to basics and hear something like what New Yorkers heard at the legendary “Experiment in Modern Music”.

In any case, the Sunday afternoon audience loved what they heard—so much so that Mr. Robertson and Ms. Shaham followed up with a substantial encore: a somewhat truncated version of Gershwin's 1934 Variations on “I Got Rhythm”. The performance sounded a bit slapdash to me, but the piece doesn't get programmed all that often so I can't complain.

Like Gershwin, Charles Ives was a man often at odds with the guardians of the classic forms in which he worked. Yes, he wrote symphonies, sonatas and string quartets, but his approach to them was radical and visionary, anticipating experiments in harmony and rhythm that would not find their way into the compositional mainstream for many years. Most of his music went unperformed during his life and much of it still presents major hurdles for both listeners and performers alike.

Originally composed in 1901 and finally orchestrated in 1907, the Symphony No. 2 is conservative by Ives standards. Indeed, compared to the hallucinatory glory of the Fourth Symphony from only a few years later, it's almost stodgy. Still, it's a work of ingenuity, droll humor and sometimes-transcendental beauty that offers substantial challenges to both the conductor and the players. Mr. Robertson and the musicians under his baton were more than equal to them, however, turning in a disciplined and luminous performance. Yes, there were balance problems once again, with the brasses in particular tending to be a bit too dominant. But if you think about it, that's really rather Ivesian in its way.

The concert opened with a fine reading of the concert suite from Aaron Copland's 1943 ballet Appalachian Spring. Mr. Robertson threw himself into this performance, conducting with his whole body and getting polished performances in return. The orchestra was accompanied by projected images from, of all things, a children's book: Jan Greenberg's Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Beautifully capturing dancers in Graham's big, dramatic poses, Brian Floca's watercolors gave audience members who might not be familiar with the ballet a good feel for the work's narrative flow and a sense of what it must have been like to see this work when it was newly minted without drawing focus from the music.

The concert closed with a thoroughly appropriate encore, given Charles Ives' love of marching bands: a rousing, “kick out the jams” rendition of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". Would you call it pandering? Maybe, if you were inclined to be a curmudgeon. Personally, I couldn't manage it; I was having far too much fun.

Next at Powell Hall: Grieg's Piano Concerto (with André Watts), Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 and Steven Mackey's Turn the Key, originally composed for the opening of the Knight Concert Hall in Miami in 2006. Gilbert Varga conducts. For more information, you may call 314-534-1700 or visit

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