Sunday, September 18, 2011

Triple time

Les Noces by the
Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Robertson
What: An all-Stravinsky program
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: September 16 and 17, 2011

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The St. Louis Symphony kicked off the 2011–2012 season this weekend with a triple shot of energetic and often brutal Stravinsky ballet scores that show the composer in his most self-consciously “Russian” mode. Written for Sergey Diaghilev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes (which also played up the fiercely exotic stereotypes of Russian culture prevalent in the French capital), Petrushka, Les Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), and Les Noces (The Wedding) still pack quite a punch today, especially when given the kind of dynamic, bravura performances delivered by Maestro Robertson and company Friday night.

Yes, there were some issues in the horns during Petrushka and the soloists in Les Noces were often inaudible, but overall the evening did full justice to this flashy and engrossing music. This is powerful stuff, with the same grab-you-by-the-throat immediacy that sent Parisians into such paroxysms of love and hate a century ago.

Perhaps the wildest ride of the evening was not, as you might expect, Sacre but rather the premiere SLSO performance of the 1923 choral ballet Les Noces. With an often surrealistic text adapted by Stravinsky from songs collected by Russian folklorist Pyotr Vasilievich Kireevsky, Les Noces runs at breakneck pace through a somewhat barbaric description of a Russian peasant wedding that, to quote British critic Alfred Kalisch, is “enough to convert intending brides and bridegrooms to celibacy.” Scored for four pianos, an expanded percussion battery (never was that word more appropriate!), chorus, and four soloists, the piece has a visceral impact that can’t be denied.

It was obvious that principal singers Dominique Labelle (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo), Thomas Cooley (tenor), and Richard Paul Fink (baritone) were thoroughly invested in their rapidly shifting roles, so it’s a pity they were so often overwhelmed by the orchestra and chorus. The problem, I think, is that Les Noces was conceived for the theatre, where the orchestra would be in a pit rather than on stage competing with the singers. Even when you place them in front as Mr. Robertson wisely did, it’s difficult for soloists of any caliber to be heard over the general din, let alone effectively communicate what amounts to a half-hour long patter song. The projected English text helped, but even so witnessing this performance of “Les Noces” was rather like holding on to a bar of a musical roller coaster—exhilarating and a bit exhausting.

The singing of Amy Kaiser’s chorus was wonderfully precise. This material sounds mind bogglingly difficult for soloists and choir alike, with no room for anything other than pinpoint accuracy. If there were a Purple Heart for choral singing, the Symphony Chorus would certainly have earned it.

The program opened with Stravinsky’s 1941 orchestration of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—something of a love note to the composer’s adopted country—followed by compelling reading of the complete Petrushka ballet. The score is, of course, strongly descriptive all by itself, but even so the projected images of the original sets, costumes, and members of the original Ballet Russes cast (including the great Najinsky in the title role) added considerably to the experience. We’ve become so accustomed to hearing great ballet scores performed in concert that it’s easy to forget how vital the element of sight is to those sounds. The Symphony’s use of what it calls a “visual narrative” is a welcome reminder of the theatrical roots of this music.

The visual narrative elements were much more sparse in the powerful performance of The Rite of Spring that concluded the evening, but given the nearly overwhelming force of this music, that’s probably just as well. As he did with the other works on the program, Mr. Robertson literally threw himself into this performance, dancing about the podium and conducting with broad but precise gestures; no Fritz Reineresque “vest pocket beat” here. This was not self-conscious theatricality, however, but clearly a genuine enthusiasm for the music. Both he and his musicians were clearly in the moment at every point, resulting in a performance that did equal justice the moments of exquisite delicacy and raucous violence in this still remarkably fresh music.

This was, in short, a very exciting beginning for the new season. My only real complaints are that, first, the house wasn’t nearly as full as it should have been and, second, that some audience members were apparently in such a hurry to get to the parking lot that they couldn’t even be bothered to applaud the great performances they’d just heard. Yes, I realize that this was a very full evening and that the two intermissions required to completely reset the stage before and after Les Noces resulted in a concert that ran a good half-hour longer than usual. Even so, would it have killed some of you to take another minute or two do let the musicians know you appreciate their hard work? I think not.

Next at Powell Hall: Maestro Robertson conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and the world premiere of Stephen Mackey’s Stumble Into Grace with Orli Shaham as piano soloist. Performances are Friday and Saturday, September 23 and 24. For more information you may call 314-534-1700, visit, or follow them on Facebook or @slso on Twitter.

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