Thursday, January 04, 2024

Symphony Review: SLSO New Year's Celebration sparkles with surprises

Norman Huynh, music director of the Bozeman (Montana) Symphony, has made a number of guest appearances with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) over the last five years. But New Year’s Eve was, as far as I know, his first time conducting the orchestra in a full evening program that didn’t involve accompanying a movie.

Norman Huynh
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The New Year’s Eve Celebration is normally handled by either the music director or associate conductor. But with the latter position currently vacant and Music Director Stéphane Denève in Paris at the helm of the New Year’s Eve concert by Orchestre National de France, it’s no surprise that the baton was passed to someone who is no stranger to the SLSO.

Huynh proved to be an excellent choice. He and the musicians were clearly comfortable with each other, his musical taste was impeccable, and his personal charm was irresistible—an important qualification for a concert in which the conductor also doubles as master of ceremonies. Huynh’s podium patter was breezy, informative, and entertaining.

The program of the New Year’s Eve Celebration concert is always kept under wraps until show time, so it’s usually a pleasant surprise to see what the maestro has in store for us. The conductor invariably puts their own personal stamp on both the choice of material and the presentation. Huynh’s approach was impressively eclectic, ranging from Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) to contemporary composer Kevin Puts (b.1972), to Sir Elton John (b. 1947).

The latter was “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (from the 1973 album of the same name), one of five numbers by guest vocalist Jimmie Herrod, a soaring ultra-high tenor whose musical interests are apparently as diverse as Huynh’s. He gave us powerfully emotional renditions of Arthur Schwartz’s “Alone Together” (in a lush 1961 arrangement originally made for Judy Garland) and Jim Weatherly’s 1973 “Best Thing That’s Ever Happened to Me” (a hit for country artist Ray Price, R&B stars Gladys Knight and the Pips, and gospel singer Rev. James Cleveland). He also rocked the house with “Son of a Preacher Man” and a rousing “Dancing in the Street,” the Marvin Gaye classic that hit the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 in a 1964 recording by Martha and the Vandellas.  In every New Year’s concert I’ve attended, the singers came from the classical and/or musical theatre worlds, so it was a welcome change of pace to see a performer who could inject some rock and soul into the mix.

Jimmie Herrod
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

But let’s get back to the classics that made up the bulk of the program. Huynh’s interpretation of Shostakovich’s 1954 “Festive Overture” got the evening off to a rousing start. Slapped together in three days to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the October Revolution, the overture is a cheerful brass and percussion potboiler in which Huynh nevertheless found room for some nuance.

Following the Shostakovich was the colorful “Virelai (after Guillaume de Machaut)” by Kevin Puts. Commissioned and first performed by the SLSO under Stéphane Denève back in 2019, this brief little gem takes “Dame, a vous sans retollir,” a modest tune by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377), and dresses it up in contemporary harmonies and a kaleidoscopic garment of sound—the musical equivalent of sparklers and/or sparkline wine. It was also a great workout for the band (especially the percussion section) and was a perfect contrast to Shostakovich’s good-humored bombast.

After a selection from the score for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” by the redoubtable John Williams (b. 1932) and the first pair of tunes by Herrod, the French connection was re-established with a luminous reading of “The Fairy Garden” (Le jardin féerique), the final movement of the “Mother Goose Suite” by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937. The radiant final bars felt a little more subdued than I would have liked, but the solos by Concertmaster David Halen and Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu were heavenly.

The first half of the concert closed with a pair of classics by Johann Strauss II (1825–1889): “The Champagne Polka” (complete with cork pops) and a somewhat truncated “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” The former was the basis for some sight gags, as a waiter brought on a bottle of champagne and orchestra members lined up for drinks. The latter had a nice Viennese lilt, but the omission of the serene introduction seemed an odd choice.

Fun fact: the percussion instrument used to deliver the cork pops is officially known as a “pop-gun effect” and is available at the musical instrument shop of your choice. You, too, can be the life of the party for around $250 (although for that kind of moolah you’d be better off with four or five bottles of good champagne).

After intermission and the obligatory “Meet Me in St. Louis” sing-along it was back to la belle France again for “The Man with Two Mistresses” (L'homme entre deux âges et ses deux maîtresses) from the ballet “The Model Animals” ballet by Francis Poulenc (1899–1963). Denève will conduct the complete work January 27 and 28, but this tasty little aural bon-bon was a pleasant teaser.

Two more songs by Jimmie Herrod and it was time for a piece that was new to me and, to judge by the response, a delight for the whole audience. It was the “Fantasia on Auld Land Syne” by British composer Ernest Tomlinson (1924–2015).  Although described by Huynh as a theme and variations, I think it’s more properly classified as a quodlibet—a form dating back to the 15th century, in which, to quote the august Britannica, “several well-known melodies are combined, either simultaneously or, less frequently, sequentially, for humorous effect.”

“Humorous effect” is putting it mildly in this case. In the course of around 20 minutes, the “Fantasia” hilariously weaves together around 129 different melodies, ranging from “La Cucaracha” to the finale from Dvorak’s Ninth, always with “Auld Lang Syne” in the background somewhere. It’s a bit like Peter Schickele’s “Eine Kleine Nichtmusik” but with twice as many tunes and a larger orchestra. I doubt that anyone present caught all 129 themes (I certainly didn’t), but based on the chortles, chuckles, and guffaws among the spectators, enough of us did to make it a hit.

In a 2002 interview for MusicWeb International, conductor Gavin Sutherland called the “Fantasia” “a work of contrapuntal genius,” and I’d have to agree. The sheer complexity produced by combination of so many different themes in so many different styles must make this piece a beast to play and conduct, but Huynh and the SLSO musicians were more than up to the task. Comedy only works properly when it’s done with this kind of skill and precision. The “Fantasia on Auld Lang Syne” was, for me, the biggest surprise and biggest hit of the evening.

Next from the SLSO: Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin leads the orchestra and violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins in music by George Antheil, Jeff Beal, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin on Friday, January 12, at 10:30 am. On Saturday, January 13, at 7:30 pm Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews joins Slatkin and the band for an evening of Milhaud, Stravinsky, Weill, and Gershwin. Both concerts take place at the Touhill Center on the University of Missouri St. Louis campus. They’re part of a three-concert series concentrating on the influence of jazz on classical music. For more information, check out my interview with Leonard Slatkin at Chuck's Culture Channel.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

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