David Robertson and The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are getting their act together and taking it on the road to sunny California this week and next, with appearances in Aliso Viejo, Palm Desert, Berkeley, and Los Angeles, January 27 through February 2. If what I saw in Powell Hall Saturday night is any indication, they're going to take the West Coast by storm.
Saturday's double bill of the John Adams "Saxophone Concerto" and Mahler's "Symphony No. 5" is one of two programs they'll be performing (the other is last weekend's multimedia version of Messiaen's "Des canyons aux étoiles...") and it couldn't be a better showpiece for both the orchestra and Mr. Robertson. That's because although the two works have little in common musically, they both present significant technical and artistic challenges.
Originally performed and recorded (for Nonesuch) by the SLSO in 2013, the concerto is not the most approachable of Adams's works, building its two movements from brief motifs that are so closely related it can be hard to tell them apart. It's edgy, aggressive music that requires a high degree of precision from both the orchestra and soloist. It also demands real endurance from the latter, since the solo sax is rarely silent for the concerto's thirty-minute length. Up on the podium, meanwhile, the concerto demands a conductor who can keep this musical express train from going off the rails and coming across as more a barrage of notes than actual music.
As they demonstrated both in 2013 and again Saturday night, Mr. Robertson and his forces can navigate this tricky score with ease. The jazz-inflected call and response sections, in particular, had the kind of snappy precision that called to mind the big band work of Stan Kenton. Mr. Robertson is obviously very comfortable with the concerto and made the compelling case for a work which, even upon second hearing, still sounds like a rather tough nut to crack.
Playing and conducting Mahler's "Symphony No. 5" (or any Mahler, if it comes to that) also requires a certain level of chutzpah. That's because it's both a massive work—five movements running around 70 minutes—and a complex one.
The first of what can be regarded as the composer's mature symphonies, it was the also the first of his symphonies with neither vocal soloists nor explicit musical references to Mahler's song cycles. And, as Michael Steinberg points out in his program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, there are other major structural changes as well:
After a run of unconventional symphonies, Mahler comes back to a more “normal” design, one that could be described as concentric as well as symmetrical...The music becomes leaner and harder. About this time Mahler acquired the complete edition of Bach. At least partly in consequence of his excited discovery of what was in those volumes, his textures become more polyphonic. But this new “intensified polyphony,” as Bruno Walter called it, demanded a new orchestral style.Then there's the fact that Mahler, like John Adams, often drew inspiration from popular music styles. In Mahler's symphonies, it's not unusual to hear a saccharine ländler, an "oom-pah" march, or a clarinet wailing in the style that would later be labeled "klezmer"—sometimes rubbing shoulders with passages of real profundity. Some of Mahler's contemporaries sneered at what they regarded as vulgarity, but ultimately the composer's wide-ranging musical interests are really just a manifestation of his idea that, as he once told Sibelius, a symphony "must be like the world. It must embrace everything."
All of this means that conducting Mahler, to my mind, requires not only a deep understanding of the capabilities of the orchestra's musicians but also a profound grasp of musical structure, along with musical sympathies that extend beyond those of the traditional concert hall.
Over the years, Mr. Robertson has demonstrated that he has those skills and knows how to apply them. His classical credentials are unimpeachable, of course, but he has shown that he's equally comfortable with film music and non-classical styles in general. Yes, I have not always been 100% persuaded by his Mahler symphonies in the past, but that's mostly a reflection of my personal taste. If I set that aside, I am obliged to acknowledge that his interpretations have always been of a very high order and sometimes (as was the case Saturday) superb.
From the first solo trumpet notes of the opening Trauermarsch (played so authoritatively by Karin Bliznik) to the wildly exuberant Rondo finale, this was a Mahler 5th that can stand with the best of them. I'd compare it favorably with Bernstein's 1964 New York Philharmonic recording, and that's saying something. At every point, Mahler's structure was clear, tempi were perfectly chosen, and all the elements of the work were in perfect balance.
Mahler's orchestration is filled with wonderful details that give nearly every section a chance to stand out. For example, Karin Bliznik and her fellow trumpeters Jeff Strong, Tom Drake, and Mike Walk carry a lot of narrative weight in the first two movements and on Saturday night did so beautifully. Roger Kazaa's horns (there are seven of them; Mahler doesn't stint) gave a real sinister rasp to their trills in the first movement and Mr. Kazaa himself was both poetic and powerful in the solo horn parts in the third movement Scherzo. Mr. Robertson had Mr. Kazaa move to the front of the orchestra for that movement; a smart decision that clarified the exchanges between the solo horn and the rest of the section.
The little major key chorale passage for trumpets and trombones in the second movement simply glowed. The famous fourth movement Adagietto for harp and strings (which the orchestra performed alone as part of Friday's "Music You Know" concert) was a touching mix of beauty and tragedy, with sensitive work by Principal Harp Allegra Lilly and the orchestra strings. And so it went, moment by impressive moment. If this doesn't knock their sandals off out there on the West Coast, I don't know what will.
The St. Louis Symphony returns to Powell Hall on Friday and Saturday, February 5 and 6, as violinist Anthony Marwood conducts an evening of chamber music by Bach, Dvorák, and Peteris Vasks. For more information, visit the SLSO web site, where you can also purchase tickets for all of the California performances.