Sunday, June 17, 2012

The People, yes.

Peter Henderson
Who: Members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
What: The Pulitzer Contemporary Music Festival
When: June 14, 2012
Where: The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

If you had any doubts that the St. Louis Symphony was an orchestra of virtuosi, the opening concert of the Pulitzer Contemporary Music Festival at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts Thursday night would surely have dispelled them. Orchestra members Eva Kozma (violin), Morris Jacob (viola), and Bjorn Ranheim (cello and "Voice of God"), along with violinist Peter Otto (a former orchestra member now living in Cleveland), gave us an utterly compelling performance of George Crumb's Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (the "Pavana Lachrymae" section was especially moving), followed by a dazzling reading by pianist Peter Henderson of Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. Yes, the piece is over-written and bit self-indulgent at times, but dang, what a performance!

The two works have more in common than just the remarkable demands they make on performers. They were written within just a few years of each other (Black Angels in 1971, The People in 1975) and both have extra-musical political references—Crumb’s to the Vietnam War and Rzewski’s to the Chilean Resistance that adopted the original Sergio Ortega tune as their anthem. As David Robertson pointed out in his pre-concert remarks, both also transcend and transform those connotations.

Black Angels is the more radical and probably the more famous of the two. Written for amplified string quartet, the work requires the players not only to use their instruments in unusual ways (at one point he has the violins and viola literally turn their instruments upside down to produce the unearthly sound of the "Pavana Lachrymae") but to play other instruments as well, including hand-held percussion and glasses filled with water in the manner of the 18th-century glass harmonica. He also has them whistle, whisper, shout, and chant.

All that requires musicians who are also comfortable with the overt theatricality of Crumb’s work, which this quartet clearly was. I think it must be difficult to do some of the unusual things Crumb requires (such as counting loudly to five in various languages) and still stay focused on the music, but they did it. This was an entertaining and moving performance of a challenging piece.

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is challenging stuff as well, and not just for the soloist, who is called upon to whistle and shout as well as play nearly an hour of music that demands every ounce of technique a pianist can muster. It’s a tough nut for the audience, as well, since Rzewski’s variations are often so ingenious that the tune disappears completely, making it easy to lose your way if you’re not intimately familiar with the piece. There’s also, to my ears, not quite enough variety in some of the variations to avoid a feeling that the work is becoming repetitious.

Still, it’s fun stuff on the whole, and it’s an interesting challenge to spot the various composers to whom Rzewski pays homage. As Mr. Robertson pointed out, The People is a compendium of just about every piano technique developed during the 20th century, making it a kind of amped-up version of the “Piano Puzzler” with which Bruce Adolph has been regaling us for the past decade on PRI’s Performance Today. I’m pretty sure I heard Ravel, Ives, Gershwin, Prokofiev, and (yes) Crumb in there somewhere.

The soloist for the Rzewski, Peter Henderson, is the ensemble keyboardist for the Symphony. His performance was stunning—technically proficient and musically aware. I was especially impressed by his work in the optional improvisation that precedes the final restatement of the theme. It was fiery, impassioned, and (honestly) more inventive than some of the composer’s variations.

The Pulitzer Contemporary Music Festival concluded Sunday, June 17th. The Symphony’s post-season activity is not over yet, though. Their Beatles tribute, Classical Mystery Tour, takes place on June 22nd. You may call 314-534-1700 for ticket information or visit

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