Monday, March 11, 2013

Tales of old Vienna

Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson with violinist James Ehnes
What: Music of Brahms, Berg, and Beethoven
Where: Powell Symphony Hall
When: March 8 and 9, 2013

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“Beautiful” isn’t a word you often hear applied to the twelve-tone music of the Second Viennese School, but I can’t think of a better one to describe the performance of Alban Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto by soloist James Ehnes and the symphony under David Robertson.

Yes, the need to derive all of the concerto’s thematic material from a single twelve note sequence (first stated by the violin at the very beginning) can lead to a sense of emotional aridity at times, but on the whole it’s a very compelling piece, especially when played this well.

Berg was not, of course, a didactic musical revolutionary along the lines of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, so his essays in serialism are often relatively approachable. And in the case of the concerto, he was strongly influenced by a personal tragedy—the death, at age 18, of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler by her second husband, the famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. It turned what might have been a more abstract piece into a kind of Serialist version of Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration,” complete with a sublime conclusion based on a direct quote of Bach’s setting of the chorale “Es ist genug (It Is Enough).”

But let’s return to the performance. Mr. Ehnes is not a showy artist. Unlike some deservedly famous fiddlers, he dresses conservatively and is not given to flashy gestures. He is, nevertheless, both an impressive technician and a sensitive musician who brought out all the drama and pathos in Berg’s music. He played the difficult Allegro that opens the second movement, for example, with the ease of a true virtuoso but did not lack for tenderness in that transcendent Bachian finale. Both he and Mr. Robertson turned in a performance that would likely have drawn a prolonged standing ovation had the music been (say) Tchaikovsky rather than Berg. At least on Friday morning that didn’t happen, which seems rather unfair. Greatness in the execution of difficult material, it seems to me, ought to get more recognition rather than less.

If Berg wore his heart on his sleeve in his concerto, Beethoven went to the other extreme in his Symphony No. 2, which closed the program. Written in 1802, the year in which the composer’s deafness was becoming apparent and in which he composed the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament”—a letter intended for (but never sent to) his brothers documenting his despair and hinting at suicide—the symphony shows not a trace of the anguish that plagued its creator. “In this Symphony,” wrote Hector Berlioz, “everything is noble, energetic, proud.” It’s as though the composer sought release from his dark mood in unstintingly sunny music.

As is often the case with these concert standards, Mr. Robertson put his own personal stamp on the music without imposing himself on it. Tempi were well chosen, orchestral details were nicely highlighted, and the performance as a whole brought out all of the lyricism, drama, and (especially) good humor in the score. I’m not saying it supplanted my Roger Norrington recording in my affections, but it came awfully close.

The concert opened with an equally well-turned reading of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn from 1873. The theme, titled "Chorale Saint Antoni", is from wind partita originally attributed to Haydn. It now appears to be of uncertain authorship and some orchestras have taken to referring to it instead as the “Saint Anthony” variations, but no matter what the name, this set of eight variations and passacaglia finale never fails to entertain.

As befits the origins of its theme, the work features some magnificent writing for the orchestral winds and brasses. It was all delivered splendidly by the orchestra winds, which this week included out-of-town guests Ann Choomack on piccolo (from the Richmond Symphony) and Bob Lauver on horn (from the Pittsburgh Symphony. The rapid passages of the fifth and eighth variations were especially impressive.

As Paul Schiavo points out in his concert notes, the symphony has given us a number of programs this season featuring Viennese composers. This was one of the weightier ones—no waltzes this time, unless you count the demented one that pops up at the end of the first movement of the Berg concerto—but no less delightful for all that.

Next on the calendar: The regular season resumes March 23 and 24 with Copland’s Quiet City and Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, Bernstein’s Serenade (with David Halen on solo violin), and a flute concerto by Christopher Rouse with Mark Sparks as soloist. Mr. Robertson conducts. For ticket information:

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