Sunday, October 02, 2011

Killer serial

George Gershwin's portrait of Arnold Schoenberg
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson and Ward Stare
What: An American in Paris
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: September 30, 2011

Friday’s St. Louis Symphony Concert was one of a series of local arts events kicking off the American Arts Experience—St. Louis, an annual seventeen-day festival “celebrating all mediums of American arts” according to the official web site. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the most compelling piece of the evening was Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16—a work written in Austria and premiered in London by a composer who would not become an American resident until late in life. It’s also impressive when you consider that the Schoenberg was a late addition to the program, replacing what was going to be a new double bass concerto written and performed by Edgar Meyer.

What made this presentation of the Five Pieces so intriguing? Well, there’s the music itself to begin with. Its complete rejection of nearly every element of Western musical thought—of, in fact, the very notion of melody or harmony as they had existed for centuries—still makes for fascinating (if highly challenging) listening over a century after its composition. I still can’t hear that six-voice fugue in the final movement, for example, and I’ve had the music in my collection since the 1960s.

Then there’s the wonderfully precise performance under Mr. Robertson’s baton. Schoenberg uses the instruments of the orchestra in extreme and unconventional ways here, calling on the performers to employ a wide range of “special effects” techniques, including flutter-tonguing, piano harmonics, and col legno techniques in the strings. It demands a lot from the players, but this is a virtuoso band, and they came through splendidly.

What really made the Schoenberg work, though, was the inventive and enlightening way in which Mr. Robertson chose to present it. This wasn’t a musical performance so much as an illustrated lecture in which each of the brief movements was introduced with commentary setting it firmly in its historical and artistic context and accompanied by a more or less contemporary painting that mirrored the movement’s central idea. The third movement, “Farben” (“Colors”), for example, was accompanied by Robert Dalaunay’s muted color wheel “Premier Disque” while the violent “Peripetie” (Peripetia) was paired with Franz Marc’s unsettling “The Fate of Animals”.

Is that a Leonard Bernstein–style gimmick? An attempt to win over audiences to the work of a composer who, as Mr. Robertson wryly notes, can empty a concert hall more effectively than a shout of “fire”? Possibly. To me, though, it was a fascinating illustration of the way in which different artistic disciplines often influence and are influenced by each other. Schoenberg was a painter as well as a composer and musical theorist, after all, and even an uncompromising work like the Five Pieces, with its compressed thematic structure and often-complex counterpoint, seems to have a strongly visual element. Calling that out might not make the music any more popular (Friday’s performance was the Symphony’s first in over forty years), but it does, I think, make it more comprehensible. With Schoenberg’s post-tonality music, that’s a fair accomplishment.

Visuals also played a strong if more obvious part in the music that concluded the first half of the program, a suite from Aaron Copland’s score for the 1939 documentary The City, accompanied by corresponding scenes from the film. The film itself, essentially a sales pitch for planned suburbs as a solution to the dehumanizing effects of big city life, has been rather sadly eclipsed by reality, but Copland’s music powerfully underscores every scene, from sentimentally bucolic images of a large mythical (and rather ethnically limited) agrarian past to nightmarish images of steel mills and traffic jams. Resident Conductor Ward Stare—a man whose star is unquestionably in the ascendant—led the orchestra in a fine performance.

Mr. Stare was one of two conductors for the opening piece, Charles Ives’s acerbically witty Central Park in the Dark from 1906 (Mr. Robertson was the other). Ives intended the piece as “a picture in sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty years or so ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air) when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.” He paints that picture by contrasting slow-moving and harmonically unfettered string harmonies with increasingly aggressive and chaotic music from the rest of the orchestra that concludes with a realistic portrayal of a runaway horse and carriage careening into a fence—after which the strings continue on serenely on. Humanity comes and goes, but nature is there for the long term.

In this performance, the rest of the orchestra was placed not just offstage but out in the lobby (hence the second conductor). From the orchestra seats it must have been an impressive surround-sound experience. We didn’t get that up in the dress circle, but hearing the cacophonous mix of marches, ragtime tunes (including Emerson and Howard’s 1899 hit “Hello, Ma Baby”), and general noise played by an ensemble that was not only unseen but nearly impossible to locate was probably just as effective. It was a wonderfully ear-opening way to start the evening.

Mr. Robertson was back on the podium to conclude the concert with An American in Paris, which he conducted in his usual cheerfully visceral way. It was a lovely, sympathetic performance that reminded me, once again, of just how much solid craftsmanship lurks behind Gershwin’s irresistible tunes. It was also a reminder of how far the man came in such a short period of time. This is, after all, a guy who went from being a Tin Pan Alley “song plugger” to an accomplished composer and orchestrator in only thirteen years. In another seven years he would write one of the mainstays of twentieth century American opera, Porgy and Bess. What might he have done had he not died so young? It’s always good to hear his work on the concert stage, especially when it’s done so well.

Next at Powell Hall: the “Red Velvet Ball” fund-raising gala with Itzhak Perlman on October 1. The regular season resumes with an all-Mozart program October 7 through 9 with Nicholas McGegan. For more information you may call 314-534-1700, visit, like the Saint Louis Symphony Facebook page, or follow @slso on Twitter.

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