Symphony Review: The Saint Louis Philharmonic delivers power and pathos on opening night
By Gary Liam Scott
Any symphony orchestra generally will have a soloist on opening night, sometimes more. The St. Louis Philharmonic and Music Director Darwin Aquino welcomed cellist Richard Hirschl for an outstanding performance of the Cello Concerto by Antonin Dvorak last weekend (October 13)--but there was much more to come. Thirteen additional soloists, all of them percussionists, joined forces in a fusillade performance that brought an incredible evening of music to a smashing conclusion with the suite from the film "La Noche de los Mayas" (Night of the Mayas)
It is always a joy to watch as well as listen to a skilled cellist. Muscles and brain are both required; the performer must muster athletic skill, visibly engaging with the entire body, yet the beauty of the instrument is that it always gives back more than it takes. Although trained at Juilliard, Richard Hirschl has roots firmly planted in the Midwest. A native son of Washington, Missouri, he joined the Chicago Symphony in 1989 and maintains a strong teaching schedule in addition to his broad commitment to orchestral and solo work. He projects a clear, deeply warm and resonant singing tone with clean articulations.
Completed in the United States in 1895, the Cello Concerto in B Minor by Antonin Dvorak stands as one of the great masterpieces of the Romantic era. The concerto encompasses great tenderness, yet it sings with the voice of nature and bursts of dramatic energy. Dvorak greatly admired the music of indigenous peoples, particularly Native Americans and African-Americans, and those melodic influences can be felt in his works, along with strains inspired by his native Bohemia. Successful performance of the cello concerto requires a soloist and orchestra that are comfortable with lyric passages as well as forceful rhythms and changing tempos. Hirschl and the Philharmonic, under Darwin Aquino's adroit baton, delivered a solid performance of this challenging work.
The concert opened with another great masterpiece from the Romantic period, the Prelude to "Tristan and Isolde" by Richard Wagner. Composer Harold Blumenfeld, a keen student of Wagner, remarked once that this opera, premiered in 1865, was all about "flesh and bone, muscle and fiber, passion and struggle." The innate passion of the opera unfolds until the conclusion hours later, but the prelude hints at the vicissitudes to follow. In the opening bars we hear the famous "Tristan chord"--a chord searching for resolution, but failing to achieve it, thus opening the door of the mind to ponder the search for meaning in life.
A work that seemed almost tailor-made for conductor Darwin Aquino brought the concert to its thunderous conclusion. Energy has a way of begetting more energy, and thirteen percussionists brought their mastery to life--tympani, bongos, gong, bass drum, xylophone and more--in the Suite in Four Movements for Orchestra from the movie "La Noche de los Mayas" by Silvestre Revueltas, arranged by Jose Ives Limantour. During his brief life (1899-1940), Mexican composer Revueltas achieved great prominence, and in the 1930s realized that film scores offered an additional avenue to bring his work to the public. His vision was broader than the sound systems of his day allowed, but Limantour's arranging of the film score allowed the power of the music to burst forth. A veritable fireworks--yet always rhythmically controlled--enabled the audience to envision the panorama of the Mayan empire. Darwin Aquino has earned a solid reputation for his energy and passion, and this concert highlighted his skills brilliantly. Additionally, Aquino has done yeoman's work to highlight the contributions of Latin American composers, to the delight of the St. Louis community and beyond.
This program was not an easy one to prepare. Meticulous concentration and counting were required of the conductor and each musician, and each work wove together many contrasting moods, patterns and rhythms. Each piece required strong teamwork from everyone onstage. Aquino and the orchestra maintained a careful game throughout.
Although balance among the sections of the orchestra was generally good, at times the strings were a bit overwhelmed. The stage at the Viragh Center at Chaminade is beautifully designed and constructed, but seemed as though perhaps a bit more space might have aided the orchestral balance. Yet overall, balance was fairly solid. During the Dvorak concerto in particular, Richard Hirschl was clearly heard almost throughout. Similarly, woodwind passages, when prominent, were clearly audible. Noticeably, the entire orchestra performed with precision, yet lyrically so.
All three works on the program shared an underlying unity perhaps not obvious; each felt charged with nature itself, yet imbued with layers of human emotion. The Dvorak concerto, like so much of his music, was redolent of a forest thick with tall trees and birds greeting the warmth of morning, yet at the same time encompassing human spirituality amidst energetic rhythms. The Wagner Prelude pointed to the vastness of space and the transformation that would unfold as the protagonists of the opera reached beyond the bounds of Earth. The suite by Revueltas expressed the primal emotions of a rich and complex civilization anchored in the mountains and jungles of Central America. The three works created an amazing quilt of earthly and human colors, a great start to a very promising season.
Additionally, once again the St. Louis Philharmonic has demonstrated the power of serious music not just to entertain, but to educate and enlighten, and to demonstrate the true fabric of diversity that is united by music. It is difficult to imagine a greater educator in our community than our performing ensembles.