"Nothing," wrote Mary Ann Evans (a.k.a. George Eliot) "is so good as it seems beforehand." Had she seen the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in action on Saturday, November 11th (unlikely, given that she died in 1880), she might have revised that aphorism a bit.

I'll admit that I was looking forward to this concert. The program included my favorite Tchaikovsky symphony -- the Fourth, in F minor -- as well as Ravel's endlessly inventive Piano Concerto in G, and the guest conductor, John Storgårds, impressed me mightily when I last saw him in back in April. I was not, however, expecting to be quite as blown away as I was.

Things got off to a fine start with the local premiere of the Tänzchen im alten Stil ("Little Dance in the Old Style"), composed in 1918 by one of the great names in Hollywood film music, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It's an ingratiating gloss on the classic Viennese waltz, with a slyly humorous beginning and a middle section with echt romantisch solos for cello and horn, followed by a coda that cleverly combines both themes. 

Mr. Storgårds gave it a very idiomatic treatment, complete with those small pauses between the first and second beat (luftpausen) that characterize the Viennese waltz. The orchestra played beautifully, including solos in the opening section from Associate Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan, Associate Principal Clarinet Diana Haskell, and bassoonist Vincent Karamanov. Principal Cello Daniel Lee and Associate Principal Horn Thomas Jöstlein carried out their solos with equal aplomb.

When pianist Marc-André Hamelin joined the orchestra for the Ravel concerto, though, it quickly became clear that the evening wasn't just gong to be good, it was going to be great.

When Ravel wrote the concerto, he set out to make it technically challenging, hoping that it would force him to improve his own game at the keyboard. That didn't happen; Paris Conservatoire piano professor Marguerite Long played at the 1932 Paris premiere. But it did create a work that demands, especially in the wistful second movement, a pianist with technique and soul.

Mr. Hamelin displayed both Saturday night, dashing off the flashy stuff in the first and third movements with ease while caressing that long-limbed waltz theme in the second. He was completely in synch with Mr. Storgårds's loving and rhythmically free approach to that movement as well as his more dynamic interpretation of the other two. Mr. Storgårds also highlighted lots of little details like Principal Harp Allegra Lilly's solo in the first movement and the run up the piano keyboard to the first restatement of the main theme.

And speaking of solos, let's direct some applause to Cally Banham for that yearning English horn line in the second movement.

The concert concluded with what can only be called a kick-ass performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Written in 1876-77, at a time when the composer's mood swung between hope and despair, this is the most compact and dramatically expressive of all his symphonies. From the commanding "fate" motive first intoned by the brasses at the beginning to the nearly hysterical triumph of the finale, this is a piece that grabs you by the lapels and doesn't let go until the end.

Which is exactly what Mr. Storgårds and the SLSO did Saturday night. If you were there, you know what I mean. Starting with a brilliant statement of the "fate" motive by the brass section, this was a Tchaikovsky Fourth that commanded one's attention and simply crackled with energy. 

There were so many great moments in this express train of a performance that I really can't list them all here. I loved the relentless "march of doom" at the end of the first movement, for example, as well as the barn-burning intensity of the finale. For me, Mr. Storgårds delivered a Tchaikovsky Fourth against which all others must be measured, with the high drama of the music accentuated by the conductor's magisterial podium presence and big, dramatic, full upper-body gestures.

Everyone played their hearts out, both in the many solos and in the ensemble overall. The melancholy main theme of the second movement was beautifully rendered by Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks and Associate Principal Bassoon Andy Gott. The string section played the pizzicato third movement with intense concentration (you could see it on their faces as well as hear it) and impressive precision. The horn and brass sections were stunning all the way through. And Thomas Stubbs deserves a particular shout-out for doing such a great job with the insanely fast cymbal part in the finale. 

Not surprisingly, the applause following this was thunderous as the audience leapt to its feet. I don't think standing ovations at Powell Hall are always justified, but I had no hesitation about joining in this time.

Since this was Veteran's Day (originally Armistice Day, which I've always felt was more appropriate), the concert was preceded by a short speech honoring the Gold Star families present by SLSO trumpeter Jeff Strong, who is a former member of the US Marine Band. It was tastefully done, and an appropriate reminder.

Next at Powell: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with Joélle Harvey, soprano; Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; and Shenyang, bass-baritone in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 18 and 19. There's also a free Youth Orchestra concert Friday at 8 p.m. with Resident Conductor Gemma New at the baton. The performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center. 

 

Remember when the score of a movie was there to provide emphasis at key moments rather than to act as an omnipresent background? The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra took us back to those thrilling days of yesteryear last weekend (November 3-5, 2017) with showings of Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, accompanied by a live performance of the John Williams score. 

Yes, the music is almost nonstop during the action-packed final moments of the movie, but there are also long stretches of unaccompanied dialog. That allows Williams's exciting and intelligent music to reinforce the action and highlight character without beating you over the head constantly. Directors of recent big-budget films should taken note.

It is, in any case, always a pleasure to hear a Williams score. Encountered in live performance, his music reveals fascinating details that can sometime go unnoticed in a theatre. Examples include the ominous use of the contrabassoon in the early scenes and the loopy music accompanying the "how we cloned dinosaurs" cartoon shown to Jurassic Park visitors. And then there's the harsh modernism that creeps into the action scenes as the chaos theory embraced by Jeff Goldbum's character proves to be all too real.

Mr. Williams's musical toolbox is, in sort, eclectic and seemingly inexhaustible -- as you might expect from someone whose involvement with the film music business extends all the way back to his days as a jazz keyboardist and film and TV studio pianist. Jurassic Park might not be his most inventive work, but it's still irresistible.

So is the film itself. Computer animation may have come a long way since Jurassic Park's digital dinosaurs wowed audiences 25 years ago, but that first appearance of the brachiosaurus is still pretty breathtaking and the velociraptors are still creepily intelligent, if scientifically inaccurate. The screenplay, adapted from Michael Crichton's book by Crichton and David Koepp, is predictable and riddled with stereotypes, and Spielberg's direction is heavily manipulative as always, but together they still produce a truly "ripping yarn," as the Brits say.

For these SLSO movie events, though, the score is the real draw. Like many big-budget films from the last few decades, Jurassic Park calls for a massive orchestra with an augmented percussion section and a full complement of brasses. Some of it also sounds rhythmically tricky, especially in the action scenes, but the band played it to perfection under the direction of Resident Conductor Gemma New.  

Conducting in sync with a movie has always struck me as a demanding task, since it requires attention to the score, the orchestra, and, on a small monitor in front of the podium, a customized version of the film with "streamers" that help the conductor cue the players. Ms. New was fully in command of all her forces Friday night, though, and delivered an impressive reading of the score. I haven't had a chance to see her conduct a more conventional program yet, but I look forward to the opportunity.

Next at Powell Hall: John Storgårds conducts the orchestra along with pianist Marc-André Hamelin in music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky Friday at 10:30 a.m, Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 10-12. The program features Ravel's Concerto in G and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.

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.

Attracting big-name international soloists, as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra does on a regular basis, is a sure sign that an orchestra is playing in the big leagues. So does having first chair players that are good enough to take the solo spot themselves. Friday night (October 27, 2017) we had examples of both.

The concert opened with the Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat major by Richard Strauss. Written in 1943, when the composer was in his eighties, it's a warm and nostalgic look back on the cultural traditions that had been seriously poisoned by the Nazi regime under which Strauss labored. The last movement in particular, as Music Director David Robertson pointed out in his pre-concert talk, has a kind of grace that recalls the horn concertos of Mozart.

In the solo spot was SLSO Principal Horn Roger Kaza, delivering a technically solid performance that was a model of classical restraint. That approach worked especially well in the Rondo finale, which skipped along beautifully.  For me, though it was a bit less effective on the first and second movements, where a bit more passion would have been welcome. Mr. Kaza also muted his horn a bit too much, I thought, often causing him to be swamped by the orchestra. He and Mr. Robertson showed real rapport, though, and got impeccable support from his fellow orchestra members. It was, overall, a very satisfying piece of work that drew a standing ovation.

Up next was Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs, composed between 1905 and 1908 when he was studying with Arnold Schoenberg but not fully orchestrated and published until 1928. Like the Strauss concerto, this is also music that largely looks back to the past, although in this case that past includes Strauss himself. There's a yearning and ecstatic romanticism to this music that makes it very approachable even if, as René Spencer Saller points out in her program notes, it rather annoyed Schoenberg.

The soloist was soprano Christine Brewer, who is both a big-name international performer as well as a local favorite, with stage credits that include not only Union Avenue Opera and Opera Theatre of St. Louis but also the Metropolitan Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and English National Opera. No surprise, then, that her singing here combined a luminous, powerful sound with a clear grasp of the text.

Those texts come from seven different German poets and vary from Carl Hauptmann's straightforward "Nacht" (Night) with its vivid evocation of a nocturnal landscape to Rilke's "Traumgekrönt" (Crowned in Dreams) with its more elliptical sexual references. Ms. Brewer showed the sensitivity to the varied moods of the songs that I have come to expect of her over the years. From the post-coital blush of "Libesode"(Ode to Love") to the quiet contemplation of "Im Zimmer" (Indoors), it was all there, and delivered with great authority.

The concert concluded with a rousing Beethoven Symphony No. 5, conducted without a score and with real fire. The Fifth has been performed and recorded so many times by so many different orchestras that it can be difficult for a conductor to put his own stamp on the work, but Mr. Robertson nevertheless managed to do just that with a driving, high-energy interpretation that created tangible excitement.

It even had some surprises to offer, including a headlong first movement and a graceful second that ran, with only the briefest pause, straight into the ghostly third. The orchestra played superbly, with fine solo work from everyone, including Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks in the first movement cadenza and flautist Ann Choomack on piccolo in the finale.

In a 2006 program note on the Beethoven Fifth for the Performance Today radio program, Christopher H. Gibbs noted that "it is difficult to divest this best known of symphonies from all the baggage it has accumulated through nearly two centuries and to listen with fresh ears to the shocking power of the work and to the marvels that Beethoven introduced into the world of orchestral music." Mr. Robertson's energetic approach jettisoned quite a bit of that baggage, reminding us of the work's remarkable power and originality.

Next at Powell Hall: SLSO Resident Conductor Gemma New leads the orchestra in John William's score for Jurassic Park, accompanying a showing of the film. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., November 3-5. As with all film events, there will be popcorn, drink specials, and you'll be able to bring food and drink into the hall with you; so be careful to avoid spills. 

 

Despite the fact that he lived only to the age of 35, achieved only moderate respect in his lifetime, and apparently never won any competitions as either a performer or composer (even though he attempted to do so), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart today -- more than 225 years after his death -- holds a grip on music lovers that would have astonished his contemporaries. With that in mind, the St. Louis Symphony inaugurated its current season with two weekends of all-Mozart programs. Music Director David Robertson, in his concluding season with the orchestra, was joined by legendary pianist Emanuel Ax for six concerto performances, plus symphonies and overtures.  

Even though many of his melodies revolve around broken chords and scale passages, a certain melodic and harmonic inventiveness can be found in Mozart's scores. Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, is the near-perfect structural elegance of his works, which has surely contributed to his stature as the defining composer of the Classical period. Music critic James Wierzbicki years ago even noted that Mozart often followed the same mathematical ratios for each movement within several of his string quartets and other works.  

Success in performing Mozart requires an orchestral ensemble and soloists that are up to the task of executing structural perfection flawlessly and giving voice to every musical thought. Fortunately, neither was lacking in such an accomplished orchestra and esteemed soloist.  Emanuel Ax's fortitude as a performer shone remarkably even after playing not one but two concertos on each program. After all six performances, he scarcely seemed tired.

Six programs devoted to the works of a single composer can be taxing to musicians and listeners already familiar with the major works of the composer, and it is always risky to force a single composer on listeners to the point of oversell -- which was perhaps the case with John Adams last season, both in St. Louis and elsewhere -- but today orchestras must be sensitive to market forces. Although these were not sellouts, nevertheless attendance was more than decent. One of David Robertson's legacies to the SLSO is the fact that he will leave the orchestra in better financial shape than when he first arrived.

The program on September 30 and October 1 consisted of the Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527; the Piano Concertos No. 16 in D Major, K. 451, and No. 17 in G Major, K. 453; and the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550.  By the standards necessarily applied to Mozart due to his short life span, all these can be considered "mature" works, i.e., written in his late twenties and early thirties. The Concerto in G Major is a surprisingly Romantic work, perhaps a forerunner of the changes that were to unfold in music in the years following the French Revolution.  

Emanuel Ax performed with the finesse and fitting elegance that we have come to expect from him. His beautiful singing tone on the piano was enhanced by bass lines that supported but never overwhelmed the right hand. Balance with the orchestra was excellent for the most part, although here and there the orchestra overpowered just a bit. As always, Robertson led with a smooth control well-suited for Mozart.

Although it is a matter of personal opinion, I would rather have heard a more varied program on opening night of Robertson's last year at the helm, but other listeners may have felt that traditional repertoire such as Mozart makes the perfect season opener. In any case, the remainder of the season will offer ample opportunity to showcase the talents of Robertson and the entire orchestra. For Mozart lovers, and for those who appreciate the tremendous skill required for his works, these programs were a milestone.

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