Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Symphony Review: Polished "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" highlights a "Music You Know" concert Friday, November 20, 2015

David Robertson
Photo: Dan Dreyfus
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I have become quite a fan of the St. Louis Symphony's periodic "Music You Know" concerts, sponsored by the Whitaker Foundation. The series got off to a rocky start last November but quickly righted itself this past March. As David Robertson and the orchestra clearly demonstrated at this past Friday's concert, the series has settled into a very polished and pleasing groove.

As the title suggests, these are classical "greatest hits" concerts, consisting of relatively short works, most of which are likely to be familiar to regulars at Powell Hall. This time around there was also a brand new piece—"Radial Play," written last year by the thirtysomething Samuel Adams—but for the most part the music was tried and true.

The concert opened with Shostakovich's "Festive Overture," slapped together in just three days in 1954 in response to a last-minute request for a piece to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the October Revolution. The music has echoes, here and there, of Glinka's popular "Ruslan and Ludmilla" overture (without the tympani solo), but it mostly pure Shostakovich, with lots of flashy writing for brass and percussion. It's a potboiler, with none of the dark drama and sarcastic humor that marks Shostakovich's major works, but even so Mr. Robertson found some subtleties in the score I hadn't heard before.

Next was one of my favorites, Dvorak's "Scherzo capriccioso." Written in the spring of 1883 just after the birth of the composer's son, the music is clearly informed by both the joy of that event and the sorrow of the death of Dvorak's mother only a few months earlier. The alternation of light and darkness is characteristic of the composer's music in general, but the middle section of this generally giddy piece has some especially poignant moments. Mr. Robertson highlighted them in a performance that was a bit less playful than I would have preferred, but well done nevertheless.

"Radial Play" was next. In his spoken remarks, Mr. Robertson explained that the title refers to the notion of rays (radii) shooting off from the F-sharp key in the middle of a standard piano keyboard. The music started and continually returned to that pitch in a kind of kaleidoscope of sonic pointillism that reminded me of the highly compressed musical essays of Alban Berg, albeit with less darkness. It was composed for the National Youth Orchestra, who must be a batch of pretty fine players, judging from the virtuosity needed to play this piece. Fortunately, the musicians were more than up to the challenge.

The first half concluded with music that pretty much everyone knows: the overture to Franz von Suppé's 1866 operetta "The Light Cavalry." The titular cavalry, as Mr. Robertson pointed out in his introduction, is Hungarian, which explains the soulful "gypsy" music that briefly interrupts the overture's well-known galloping rhythms. This was another fine performance, distinguished, in part, by Scott Andrews's limpid version of the clarinet solo.

The second half of the concert began with another work firmly entrenched in popular culture: the overture to Rossini's popular comic opera "The Barber of Seville." Like Shostakovich, Rossini had the ability to dash off polished compositions on short notice, but in this case he simply re-used an overture he had used for two previous operas, "Aureliano in Palmira" and "Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra." Which is why none of the engaging tunes in the overture appears in the actual opera. Here, again, Mr. Robertson found little nuances in the music that I hadn't really heard before, including a very romantic approach to the first major theme in the violins.

Two brief Russian favorites followed: Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" from "The Tale of the Tsar Sultan," performed with brisk precision and featuring some impressive playing by the flute section, and Rachmaninoff's affecting "Vocalise." That latter got a melting, heart-on-sleeve treatment that felt just right.

The concert concluded with what was, for me, the highlight of the evening: Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" ("Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell"), Op. 34. It was written for the 1946 educational documentary film "Instruments of the Orchestra" where it was accompanied by plummy narration by conductor Sir Malcom Sargent, who introduced each section of the orchestra as it played its particular variation on the theme, which was taken from Purcell's incidental music for the 1676 tragedy "Abdelazer or The Moor's Revenge".

It's a brilliant showpiece and was performed with tremendous polish and panache. Each section made the most of its individual variation and the final statement of the theme was properly rousing. Mr. Robertson and his forces definitely earned their standing ovation with this one.

The "Music You Know" concerts are clearly intended to attract a wider audience to Powell Hall, so I was a bit disappointed to see so many empty seats Friday night. Still, there appeared to be a lot of folks in the house who were probably not SLSO regulars, so that bodes well. And if the concerts continue at this high level, the orchestra will certainly be putting its best foot forward.

Next at Powell: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with double bassist Erik Harris, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., 27-29. The program features Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf as well as the US premiere of Tan Dun's Contrabass Concerto: The Wolf. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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