Monday, December 05, 2011

Songs for all the seasons of your mind

Osvaldo Golijov
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ward Stare with violinist Jennifer Koh
What: Music of Schubert, Vivaldi, and Osvaldo Golijov
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: December 2 through 4, 2011

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Friday night St. Louis Symphony Resident Conductor Ward Stare had neither score nor baton but lots of panache when he stepped up to the podium to conduct an utterly captivating Schubert “Symphony No 5”. And the best was yet to come: the local premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s fascinating Sidereus and a wonderfully dramatic approach to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with irresistible solo work by Jennifer Koh. It was a night of big music for (mostly) small orchestra.

This was only my second opportunity to see Mr. Stare conduct an entire program on his own and he was, once again, impressive. With or without a baton, his communication with the orchestra was always clear and his concentration obviously intense. I have noted before that Mr. Stare is a conductor whose star is in the ascendant, and his work here did nothing to contradict that assessment.

Mr. Stare’s Schubert was a nice balance of classical discipline and romantic lyricism. Tempi were brisk but never felt rushed. The joy, drama, and sense of unfolding song were all there. The Fifth is a symphony that, while clearly in the Classical style, contains elements (particularly in the Andante con moto and Menuetto) that look forward to the more overtly Romantic sensibilities of later Schubert and his successors. Mr. Stare’s interpretation honored both worlds.

The orchestral playing was at its usual high level, with fine work from everyone — and a particular tip of the topper is due to principal flautist Mark Sparks. If you want to take the true measure of an orchestra, note the quality of the sound when they’re playing chamber music. The Schubert Fifth is essentially a chamber symphony and the musicians gave it the fine playing it demanded.

The second half of the program promised (and delivered) some first-rate Vivaldi, but first there was the local premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s 2010 mini tone poem, Sidereus. Inspired by the expanded view of the heavens that Galileo experienced with his telescope and described in his 1610 treatise Sidereus Nuncius, the work employs an interesting variety of compositional techniques and canny orchestration (including some wonderful solo and soli passages for the winds) to conjure up a sense of vast, celestial space. The language is clearly modern while still being entirely approachable.

Whenever I hear a new work, I always ask myself whether or not I’d like to hear it again. In this case, not only would I like to hear Sidereus again, I’d very much like to find out what Mr. Golijov’s other compositions sound like. If Sidereus is any indication, he has managed to synthesize academic, theatrical, and popular music elements, especially those of his native Argentina, into a unique personal style. It makes me intensely curious about his larger scale works.

Jennifer Koh
The program concluded with a very theatrical and highly entertaining Four Seasons with Jennifer Koh as the violin soloist. Ms. Koh is a veritable dynamo of a performer, shaking her head and tearing into the fast movements with ferocity and singing the slow ones. Her tone was appropriately dry overall and her ornamentation (those little melodic embellishments that are part of Baroque performance practice) sounded right to my non-expert ears.

She also worked well with the ensemble. Her exchange of birdcalls with Concertmaster David Halen in the first movement of the “Spring” concerto was particularly captivating, calling to mind the way traditional Appalachian fiddlers trade licks. There were also memorable moments with Principal Cellist Daniel Lee and harpsichordist Maryse Carlin.

Ms. Koh and Mr. Stare gave us a Four Seasons filled with dramatic contrasts. The winter ice was brittle (with fittingly chilling harmonics in the strings), the summer storms violent, and the autumnal folk dances jolly. It’s a reminder of how effective Vivaldi was in evoking strong visual images without any of the instrumental technology that contemporary composers can employ. It’s a reminder, as well, of how much room for invention there is in performing this music while staying true to the composer’s intent.

The remainder of December at Powell Hall will be taken up with special holiday events, including A Gospel Christmas with the IN UNISON chorus, a John Williams movie music program, and the annual New Year’s Eve gala. The regular subscription season resumes January 13 and 14, 2012, with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, George Crumb’s 1984 A Haunted Landscape, and Strauss’s Four Last Songs with St. Louis’s own Christine Brewer. David Robertson conducts. 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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