When I reviewed the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's world premiere of Steven Mackey's Stumble to Grace a few years ago, I was struck by the music's whimsy and humorous sensibility as well as by its flashy orchestral writing. All of those qualities were present once again last Sunday (October 22, 2017) at Powell Hall, as the SLSO opened their concert with Mackey's 2015 Mnemosyne's Pool.
Laid out in five movements and running around forty minutes, Mnemosyne's Pool is scored for a massive orchestra (nearly 100 musicians), including a percussion battery that includes everything from a triangle to a brake drum. The wildly inventive variety of sounds that Mackey produces with those forces provides much of the work's charm.
The title refers to the Greek goddess who presided over the pool of memory in Hades, and in his notes at the Boosey and Hawkes website, Mr. Mackey says that the work centers on "the role of memory in musical creation and reception." An abrupt change in the melodic line "asks the listener to remember an earlier point in the line instead of continue inexorably forward."
To me, the many shifts of mood and orchestral color in Mnemosyne's Pool did, in fact, evoke memories, but they were memories of other composers. The first section, for example, unfolded as a kind of passacaglia that reminded me of Bach. Later a bassoon figure brought Bartok to mind while other passages strongly suggested the work of Leonard Bernstein. There were no explicit quotes or even paraphrases (Mr. Mackey is too original for that), but the overall effect was a kind of kaleidoscopic total recall of a century or so of sound, all filtered through Mr. Mackey's unique sensibility.
In his spoken introduction, maestro David Robertson noted that Mnemosyne's Pool was a work that he had come to love, and his enthusiasm showed in everything he and the SLSO musicians did. The work is, as a Musical America critic noted, a kind of "concerto for orchestra" that bristles with remarkable solo passages for nearly every instrument, and the members of the band all had chances to strut their stuff. Will James and his percussion section, in particular, covered themselves with glory.
After intermission, the orchestra turned to more familiar territory, beginning with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.
First performed in 1870 and then revised in 1877 and 1880, Romeo and Juliet manages the neat trick of compressing the essential emotional themes of Shakespeare's five-act tragedy into around 20 minutes of music. Mr. Robertson's interpretation was appropriately theatrical, featuring strong dramatic contrasts, beginning with a hushed opening chorale and delicate string pizzicati that made the transition to the first statement of the battle music all the more potent. The famous "love theme" had a lush, swooning feel, enhanced by especially fine playing from Associate Principal Horn Thomas Jöstlein and the rest of the horn section.
The concert concluded with one of the great showpieces of the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff's brilliant Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from 1934. The Russian expatriate was one of the previous century's great pianists, and the Rhapsody served him well as he toured Europe and America, including an appearance with the SLSO in December of 1934. The piece is a sort of mini-concerto, consisting of 24 variations on (appropriately) the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin -- a tune that has proved irresistible for composers from Liszt to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
At the keyboard was Orli Shaham, who first met Mr. Robertson when two were appearing together at Powell Hall in 1999. They were married in 2003, the same year Mr. Robertson became the SLSO Music Director, but have rarely appeared together with the orchestra. With Mr. Robertson's tenure coming to an end this season, this past weekend's appearance could be the last one they ever do together with the SLSO, which lent a kind of poignancy to the event.
The performance itself displayed the mix of nuance and technical skill that I have come to expect from Ms. Shaham. You could hear the former in the subtle gradations of tone that mirrored changes in the mood of the music, accompanied by changes in facial expression and body language that indicated a deep involvement with the score.
As for Ms. Shaham's virtuosity, it was apparent in every precisely rendered note of this challenging work. This was particularly noticeable in her seemingly effortless way with the fiercely difficult final variation, which even the composer was said to have found a bit daunting.
The applause Sunday was prolonged enough to move Ms. Shaman to play an encore for us: Bach's Prelude in E minor, BWV 855a, in the B minor transcription by the Russian pianist Alexander Siloti. The luminous mix of Baroque and late Romantic elements was an ideal way to end the concert.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in music by Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, and Beethoven Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 27-29. Soprano Christine Brewer will perform Berg's Seven Early Songs and SLSO Principal Horn Roger Kaza will play Strauss's Horn Concerto No. 2. The concerts will conclude with Beethoven's popular Symphony No. 5. The performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.