Saturday, February 10, 2024

Review: Great chamber music from the SLSOs "inner circle" at The Sheldon

I have periodically described the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) as an ensemble of virtuosi. The SLSO “Live at the Sheldon” concert last night (Wednesday, February 7) was a welcome opportunity to hear five of those virtuosi in action. Curated by Concertmaster David Halen and Principal Second Violin Alison Harney, the evening was an impressive mix of works old and new for string quartet with Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu and Associate Principal Cello Melissa Brooks, and in the second half, with SLSO principal Keyboardist, Peter Henderson on piano.

L-R: Peter Henderson, Alison Harney, 
Beth Guterman Chu, David Halen,
Melissa Broois

Halen and Harney introduced the program with some interesting comments on the differences and similarities between playing chamber music and leading their respective sections in orchestral concerts. Halen noted that these four form the "inner circle" of string players, meaning they are positioned at the front of their respective sections, closest to the conductor. This setup allows for a rough approximation of playing chamber music, as they are near each other. At the same time, though, they must remain mindful of leading their respective sections, which limits the intimate give-and-take that is characteristic of chamber music. That insight provided a fascinating glimpse into how the musical sausage is made.

It was made with quality ingredients last night, beginning with the Andante Cantabile second movement from the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor by Florence Price (1887–1953). Composed in 1935 (just two years after the premiere of her unjustly neglected Symphony No. 3), the quartet displays the mix of early twentieth-century chromaticism and African American melodic material that characterizes so much of Price’s music. Coming as it does immediately after the large-scale drama of the first movement, the Andante Cantabile offers a welcome change of pace in the form of a lyrical cradle song. A rocking two-note ostinato in the second violin supports a gentle theme that Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904), whose Piano Quintet concluded the concert, would have surely appreciated.

The quartet’s performance of this little gem was exceptional as they played with seamless teamwork. It was evident that they had a great rapport and communicated with each other effortlessly. Indeed, this performance was characteristic of the entire evening. It was surprising to start the concert with such a gentle and charming piece of music, but the quartet pulled it off with great finesse.

The generally contemplative mood continued with the world premiere of “The Art of Dreaming” by Robyne Sieh (b. 2002), a 2020 winner of the Missouri Composers Project competition who has since moved to a career as a composer, pianist, and arranger. The brief work opens with a yearning first theme which gives way to a more contemplative second before moving to a more agitated section. I’m not sure how the music connected with either the title or Sieh’s description of it as being about a composer’s duty to “bring color to this world,” but the quartet’s sympathetic performance certainly made a good case for it.

Bringing color to the world is, however, a respectable description of what Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) did with his first and only String Quartet. Like his fellow Impressionist Claude Debussy, Ravel was wont to paint in musical watercolors, at least early in his career. The quartet inhabits a hazy, shifting, and sometimes indeterminate emotional landscape and poses a fair number of technical challenges.

The quartet gave an outstanding performance that captured the composer's quicksilver mood shifts while maintaining a consistent sense of momentum. When the melodic line jumped rapidly among the instruments, those leaps were always clear. The lively second movement's pizzicatos, trills, and tremolos were light and precise. The third movement (Très lent) was suitably eerie and nocturnal, while the finale bristled with energy.

Above all, Halen, Harney, Guterman Chu, and Brooks played with a cohesive ensemble sound, despite the somewhat chilly acoustics of the Sheldon’s balcony. Ravel’s scoring is remarkably democratic, with each of the four instruments given equal weight, which amply rewards serious teamwork.

The concert closed with the 1887 Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904), a work aptly described by writer/cellist J. Anthony McAllister as “easily one of the finest examples of late Romantic chamber music.” First performed on January 8, 1888 at a concert in the Rudolfinum in Prague, the Piano Quintet was enthusiastically received and quickly became a hot item for the composer’s publisher, Simrock. The work’s combination of craftsmanship and melodic appeal has kept it firmly in the musical mainstream ever since.

The addition of Henderson was a welcome addition to the ensemble. Over the years, I have been impressed by Henderson’s technique and versatility, playing everything from Haydn to Frederic Rzewski on everything from harpsichord to synthesizer. So I expected (and got) superb playing that stood out when it was supposed to and blended seamlessly with his fellow musicians the rest of the time.

The performance paid a great tribute to the essence of Dvořák's worldview, which brilliantly blends the contrasting elements of light and darkness. This was most apparent in the quartet’s performance of the Andante con moto second movement, which is based on the Czech dumka, a dance characterized by a mix of mirth and melancholy. The wistful little opening theme got a most sympathetic treatment by Henderson and Guterman Chu. The wild Vivace of the central section was delivered with gusto by the full ensemble, making the final return to the opening mood that much more poignant.

Next, we got a wonderfully incendiary third movement Furiant, followed by an Allegro finale (complete with a bit of fugal counterpoint) that brought the audience to its feet. Yes, the old “standing O” is easy to get in this country, but it was well-earned Wednesday night.

This was my first chance to catch one of the SLSO’s chamber music concerts at the Sheldon. I do believe I’m going to have to attend more of them in the future.

Next from the SLSO: Stéphane Denève returns to conduct the orchestra and chorus in Orff’s ever-popular “Carmina Burana,” along with works by Arvo Pärt, Wagner, and contemporary composer Lera Auerbach. Performances are Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 17 and 18, at the Stifel Theater.

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