Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bernstein and Gershwin rule in an all-American Thanksgiving weekend with the St. Louis Symphony

Kirill Gerstein
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
What: Music of Bernstein, Gershwin, Michael Daugherty, and Andrew Norman
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: November 28-30, 2014

St. Louis residents had a great alternative to the teeming multitudes at the malls and movie theaters Thanksgiving weekend: a bracing concert of American music for that most American of holidays.

This weekend's concerts open with a fanciful bit of low comedy and high musical invention: Michael Daugherty's "Hell's Angels." Scored for bassoon quartet and large orchestra (a plethora of percussion, including the massive "Mahler box" and a thundersheet), the piece is a cinematically vivid send-up of the obnoxious noise-making that seems endemic to motorcycle culture in the USA. The composer says it's "the musical tale of a gang of hot-rodding motorcycling bassoonists who ride into town and take over a concert hall" and, in fact, that's how David Robertson has staged it. The orchestra began playing the minuet from Boccherini's Op. 11 string quartet, only to have it rudely interrupted by Daugherty's aggressively discordant opening as SLSO bassoonists Andrew Cuneo, Andrew Gott, and Felicia Foland and contrabassoonist Gregg Henegar swaggered on to the stage all punked up in black leather to play their fiercely difficult solos. The joking suggestion, in my preview article, that Mr. Cuneo, as Principal Bassoon, should be wearing a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back turned out to be unintentionally prophetic.

As you might expect from the composer of the Peter Schickele-esque "Le Tombeau de Liberace" (which the SLSO did back in 2003), "Hell's Angels" is long on visual and musical jokes and features some spectacular virtuoso writing for the soloists, with lightning runs, leaps that employ the full range of the instruments, and what the composer describes as "devilishly difficult polyrhythms." Granted, the noisy movie music orchestrations swamped some of it, but Daugherty has written some wonderfully transparent passages as well.

For me, "Hell's Angels" wore out its welcome a bit before it ended, but it was still great fun. It was also a nice prologue for another work inspired by testosterone-fueled acting out, Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story."

If your only exposure to the dance music from Bernstein's "West Side Story" is via the film or touring productions of the show, you might not be aware of just how brilliantly scored it is. Theatrical pit bands rarely have enough players to do it justice, so much thanks is due to the composer and his orchestrators, TV and film arrangers Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, for putting together this nine-movement suite in 1960. It's a remarkable piece, filled with tricky polyrhythms, dissonance, flashy orchestration (including an expanded percussion battery), and a raft of other touches that remind us of how effectively Bernstein bridged the worlds of concert hall and Broadway theatre.

As you might gather from that last paragraph, this is music that requires great precision and drive from the orchestra (to say nothing of the ability to snap fingers and shout "mambo" on cue). I'm happy to report that Mr. Robertson and his forces passed the score's tests with flying colors. The percussion section covered itself with glory, and they weren't alone. Everyone played with such fluid skill that it was easy to forget what a challenging piece this is.

Even in the standard repertoire, by the way, Mr. Robertson has an uncanny knack for reminding us of the dance rhythms that underlie so much of Western music. In openly dance-inspired pieces like this, he is thoroughly in his element.

The big attraction for me this week, though, was the original 1924 jazz band version of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Usually heard in Ferde Grofe's full-orchestra expansion of 1937, the "Rhapsody" didn't get back to its roots until Samuel Adler reconstructed and recorded the 1924 arrangement in 1971. The jazz band version has a kind of snap and flash that a full orchestra can't seem to match, especially when played by an ensemble as good as this one. Scott Andrews gave the famous opening clarinet solo all the limpid, bluesy grace it needs, nicely seguing into Tom Drake's "wah-wah" trumpet. The addition of saxophonists Nathan Nabb, Paul DeMarinis, and Adrianne Honnold added considerably to the '20s ambience, as did James Betts on banjo.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein played the solo part with all the technical skill you might expect, combined with an impressive sensitivity to the improvisatory nature of this piece. He freely embellished the music more than once Friday night (and even more so on Saturday), but always in a '20s jazz style that was very true to Gershwin. It was a reminder that the composer himself did some improvising when he played the work's Aeolian Hall premiere.

It was, in short, a joy to finally see and hear a live performance of an arrangement that I had previously known only on recordings.

Preceding the Gershwin and, in fact, leading into it without pause, was Andrew Norman's "Try" for piano and orchestra. Composed on a commission in 2011, the work is, according to Mr. Norman, about the difficult process of trying different musical ideas until you come up with one that "finally (fingers crossed) gets it right." It's an interesting notion, but in practice it sounded like a compilation of every "new music" cliché of the last fifty years. After 15 long minutes, it slowly winds down to a single descending figure in the piano repeated well past the point of tedium. It was, you should pardon the expressing, trying.

Throughout the evening—and especially during the last two works—artist S. Katy Tucker provided projections and a light show. They enhanced the Norman and the Gershwin, and provided some mood-setting footage from the film version of "West Side Story" as a prelude to the Bernstein. I don't know that any of it was particularly essential, but it was a nice addition nevertheless.

Next at Powell Hall: Steven Jarvi conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with violin soloists Jessica Cheng, Angie Smart, Jooyeon Kong, and Alison Harney Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., December 5-7. The program features Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" along with music by Barber and Wagner. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, visit the symphony web site.

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