Monday, January 13, 2014

Roll over, Beethoven

Andrey Boreyko
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony conducted by Andrey Boreyko with violinist Adele Anthony
What:  Music of Stephanie Berg, Nielsen, and Beethoven
When: Friday and Saturday, January 10 and 11, 2014
Where: Powell Symphony Hall

The first of the St. Louis Symphony's "Beethoven Festival" concerts this weekend brought exciting performances by guest conductor Andrey Boreyko of three works, each separated by nearly a century: Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7 in A major", Op. 92 (first performed in 1813), Carl Nielsen's Op. 33 "Violin Concerto" (1912 premiere), and "Ravish and Mayhem", a colorful little tone poem by Missouri composer Stephanie Berg from 2012 that opened the evening.

New music at the symphony isn't often greeted with wild applause. More often the reaction is polite (if somewhat baffled) approval from audience members who aren't sure whether they missed something important or whether, as Anna Russell once observed, the composer was just trying to get away with something.

Stephanie Berg
Not so with "Ravish and Mayhem," which drew enthusiastic ovations for both the orchestra and—when Mr. Boreyko persuaded her to appear on stage—Ms. Berg as well. Inspired, according to the composer, by a vision of "an ancient Middle Eastern street festival," this unabashedly cinematic and vivid piece was a delight from the opening Coplandesque fanfares and melismatic woodwind figures to the brass glissandi near the end that conjured up images of trumpeting elephants.

Yes, dear friends, it was the 21st century version of Ketèlbey's 1920 hit "In a Persian Market." And I mean that in the best way possible. Many contemporary composers, in my view, could benefit from trying to be a bit more like the late British master of "light music" and a bit less like (say) Karlheinz Stockhausen.
The symphony musicians handled this new work with the same ease they display with well-worn favorites. There were especially notable contributions by Andrea Kaplan (flute), Ann Choomack (piccolo), Scott Andrews (clarinet), and Diana Haskell (E-flat clarinet) in the lively opening section.

Next was Carl Nielsen's violin concerto, a work that, like many of the Danish master's symphonies and other larger works, often defies expectations in ways that can leave audience members a bit confused. Which might explain why the concerto wasn't heard at Powell until 2001 (nearly 90 years after its premiere) and hasn't returned since Robert Spano conducted a performance with Yang Liu in October of 2002. Adele Anthony was the soloist this time, and she gave us a thoroughly idiomatic and assured reading (as you might expect from a Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition winner), dashing off the cadenza and final pages of the Allegro cavalleresco that closes the first half of the concerto so impressively that she was awarded with a spontaneous burst of applause.

Adele Anthony
Personally, I've always loved Nielsen's music. I find the composer's joy in the unexpected and characteristic melodic voice immensely appealing. It would be nice to see more of it on the stage at Powell.

The evening closed with an exhilarating Beethoven "Symphony No. 7," beautifully shaped by Mr. Boreyko. He last conducted the orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky program in November of 2012 that was distinguished by an electrifying performance of the "Violin Concerto" by Vadim Gluzman and a "Symphony No. 1" that exploited all of the work's extremes in tempi and dynamics while still pulling everything together into a coherent whole. The Beethoven Seventh comes from a more restrained emotional world than the Tchaikovsky First, but Mr. Boreyko nevertheless found and effectively exploited all the drama inherent in the music.

He displayed an unerring ability to build to an effective climax, both within movements (as in the opening Poco sostenuto) and in the overall structure of the symphony. The white-hot intensity of the finale was simply the inevitable conclusion of an arc that had been built from the first notes of the first movement—the conclusion of which got a round of spontaneous applause—and which ran through the steady rhythmic pulse of the second and the fleet-footed romp of the third. An enthusiastic and thoroughly justified standing ovation followed.

It's likely that the orchestra that first performed Beethoven's seventh was somewhat smaller than 73 musicians assembled for this weekend's performance, but they played with the crisp articulation and precision of a much smaller ensemble. Timpanist Shannon Wood, in particular, deserves a shout-out for exactitude and endurance during that remarkable final movement.

The Beethoven Festival continues this coming weekend with the "Piano Concerto No. 5" (the "Emperor") along with Weber's "Euryanthe Overture" and Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra." Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts with soloist Louis Lortie . Performances are Friday at 10:30 AM (a Krispy Kreme coffee concert), Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM, January 17-19. For more information:

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