Going a big step beyond, the visiting St. Louis Symphony gives its concert, then spends a day interacting with music students to foster the inspiration for the future.
This rare interaction made for a double-barreled impact at the University of California here, some 70 miles east of San Francisco. As if it were needed, the orchestra and its leader David Robertson showed their mettle in unfamiliar 20th-century repertory created by precocious composers not even 30 years old. There’s a certain bravado in a maestro going on tour with unfamiliar selections, but Robertson has never shied away from challenges. As he leaves this ensemble after 13 years, he takes with him an audacity, eloquence and sterling record to whatever hurdles lie ahead in the great unknown.
In concerts, is jovial laughter permitted? Because we symphony-goers rarely let out horse-laughs, the Adès “Powder Her Face” Suite (1995/2017) was met by a serious-minded audience, as if poker-faces were mandatory concert attire. Yet this is one of the great modern burlesques, a comic opera run wild, with tangos so out of control it all borders on outrage.
But it’s not just outrage, it’s roaring good and racy comic-opera romp altogether rare in our era. How those musicians must love letting loose with all those appended sour notes, plus the fade-way, the glissandi, the sonic explosions and the wah-wah.
Yes, the story is based on that real-life duchess who exceeded to sexcess, so to speak, and became the gone-astray model for this cheeky British musical foray. Did you really think that the English were all so proper?? Nay!
For the performance, the orchestra’s freelancers performed on soprano and tenor sax, and very ably at that, thereby giving the work more of a dance-hall color.
On a serious note the program spotlighted a stellar young violinist and major prize-winner, Augustin Hadelich, 33, originally from Mannheim, Germany. Hadelich was a brilliant interpreter of Benjamin Britten’s neoclassical Violin Concerto (1939), a generally mournful 36-minute work reflecting Britten’s concern over his homeland entering World War Two. Leaning heavily toward the minor modes, the light touch on the lead violin is punctuated with doleful blasts of trombones and heavy-hearted string-section play. Hadelich showed himself supremely sensitive in this repertory, linking hand-in-glove with Robertson’s players. He provided the very luminosity that this piece cried out for.
Robertson himself showed amply why and how he is in the forefront of American conductors today.
In his First Symphony, Dmitri Shostakovich used a device long favored by romantic composers like Franz Liszt: Powerful segments followed abruptly by very soft ones, and then back again. This work embodied a lot of Soviet-Russian angst, decorated with a meaty timpani solo (Shannon Wood), plus instrumentals by concertmaster David Halen and oboist Jelena Dirks. The rousing finale had Robertson leaping off the ground on the podium and all but entering orbit before the ultimate fadeout/winddown, a surprise ending that Shostakovich used in later works like the Symphony No. 9.
The St. Louis musicians finished with a flourish, playing as an encore John Philip Sousa’s beloved “Hands Across the Sea.” Listening out front in Row R was Hadelich himself, who after his concerto simply couldn’t tear himself away. The concert was given in the 1,800-seat Jackson Hall of the Mondavi Center. The 16-year-old facility has admirable orchestral acoustics; its stage is encircled by wood panels, which musicians dearly love as their architectural sounding boards (little wonder, you might say—a good 80 percent of an orchestra plays on wooden instruments).
The melifluous encore was Juventino Rosas’ familiar “Over the Sea.”
St. Louis Symphony under David Robertson, Jan. 17-18 at U.C. Davis’ Mondavi Center, and repeating Jan. 19 in concert at the Bing Center, Stanford Univ. For Bing info: (650) 724-2464, or go online.