The phrase "American exceptionalism" gets misused a lot these days, but as this past weekend's concerts of some wonderfully inventive twentieth-century American music demonstrated, sometimes the USA can take credit for things that are, indeed, exceptional.
The concerts opened with a pair of suites by Leonard Bernstein: "Three Dance Episodes" from his first major Broadway hit "On the Town" (which opened in December 1944) and the "Symphonic Suite" from his score for the 1955 Elia Kazan film "On the Waterfront." The stylistic contrast between the two was striking. The selections from "On the Town" are brash and pure Broadway, albeit with some sophisticated harmonies and polyrhythms that weren't typical of the Broadway stage back then. The longer and more dramatic film music packs more of an emotional punch, moving from mechanistic aggression to lyricism to an exultant but dissonance-tinged finale.
There are lots of exposed solo parts in this music, including an opening horn solo in "On the Waterfront" that's nearly as scary as the one in Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel" and some nice moments for the alto saxophone. Roger Kazaa handled the former beautifully when we attended Saturday night, as did Nathan Nabb on the latter. The percussion section deserves a shout-out for their work in the first movement's presto barbaro depiction of urban violence, as does Diana Haskell for her E-flat clarinet solos in "On the Town."
Photo: Marco Borggreve
What apparently put off the audience at the concerto's 1927 premiere, though, was the polyrhythmic and exuberantly surreal take on 1920's dance styles like the Charleston that characterizes the concerto's second (and final) movement. It starts with an extended and slightly loopy passage for the soloist that is intended to suggest improvisation. The music careens around drunkenly until finally joining the full orchestra, a manic dance that might have been played by Paul Whiteman's band had they taken hallucinogens. It's a hoot and a half, and sounds hard as hell to play.
Soloist Inon Barnatan was clearly in complete control of this wild and woolly material and appeared to be enjoying himself immensely, as was Mr. Jarvi. I was so captivated I failed to take a single note (hey, it happens!) and was happy to give everyone a standing ovation afterwards. I've heard recordings of the concerto in the past, but I think it takes a live performance to really convey the sense of nose-thumbing fun Copland wrote into this music.
As with "On the Town," a performance of this piece "don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Because while the composer, in a 1928 Musical America interview, openly acknowledged his nod to "Debussy and The Six" in "An American in Paris," this is still quintessentially Gershwin. The first statement of the big second theme in the trumpets, for example, calls for a kind of jazzy freedom that might not necessarily come easily to all classically trained conductors and players. Mr. Jarvi and the band got every little nuance of it just right, though, delivering a performance of great energy and clarity.
Next at Powell Hall: John Storgårds conducts the orchestra with soloist Lars Vogt in Schumann's "Piano Concerto." Soprano Kate Reimann and bass-baritone Jeffrey Heyl sing the wordless solos in Nielsen's "Symphony No. 3" ("Sinfonia espansiva") and the concerts open with Beethoven's "Egmont Overture." Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. For more information: stlsymphony.org.