Sunday, April 10, 2011

St Louis Symphony Mahler 2

It seems I am falling into a pattern. Every year or so I gas up the old Buick and head east on I70 to the other side of the state to my old haunt St Louis, MO to partake of a special concert by the usually excellent St Louis Symphony. A couple seasons ago it was a wonderful Britten War Requiem with Music Director David Robertson and my favorite Diva (and Facebook friend) Christine Brewer. Next was an increasingly rare appearance by the great Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczweski and his specialty the Bruckner 8th. So, in keeping with tradition, I headed to St Louis for a special concert of Mahler's grand Symphony # 2 with the St Louis SO, Christine Brewer, soprano, Kelley O'Connor, Mezzo and the St Louis Symphony Chorus all under the direction of Music Director David Robertson. Samuel Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard" opened the show.

Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard" for Chorus, Soprano and Orchestra (based on the writings of Soren Kierkegaard) received a grand and emotional performance. The opening prayer, beautifully pure and sung with perfectly Gregorian piety by the men of the chorus, was followed by the reverent and passionate "Lord Jesus Christ who suffered all life long featuring Brewer's commanding but clear and sincere soprano voice. The final two prayers increased in drama and thickened in choral and fanfare laced orchestral texture concluding with the final prayer, a richly thick chorale "Father in Heaven, hold not our sins up against us".

But the evening was really all about the Mahler and overall it was a satisfying and frequently eloquent performance. Frankly the two vocal movements came off best of all, aided by the masterful soloists and the magnificent chorus. Robertson and the orchestra certainly did no harm to Mahler and his incredible score; in fact the performance was full of finely tuned details, moderate and appropriate tempi and fine orchestral work. But to my ears, the first two movements lacked the passion, swagger and flow that would have made this a perfect live Mahler 2.

Take the fabulous second movement "Andante Moderato" for example; finely played, lush strings, a perfectly delicate performance of the pizzicato string/flute/piccolo episode, fine pace... but no flow. The best performances will have the landler rhythm almost like that of boats rowing, a strong accent and push, a glide and then another accent as the oars hit the water for the next stroke. Robertson was just too foursquare. The damn street noise of sirens careening down Grand Ave didn't help, but what can one do?

The first movement began with a thrilling flourish; the basses digging into the opening motives with vigor and a tinge of foreboding. As the movement progressed, one sensed one was listening to a fine performance, but with the same bit of slackness as I described for the Andante. Again, far far far from a poor performance, maybe I just have Bernstein's white hot performances burned into my Mahler senses.

The incredible scherzo, "In ruhig fließender Bewegung" (with quiet, flowing movement) is one of my favorite Mahler movements. Robertson and the orchestra began to stir in this movement, with more elasticity and drama and a better sense of Mahler's flowing, folk derived rhythms. Sadly, the movement was marred by a too harsh and sharp rute that sounded more like solid sticks than the brush-like reeds which contribute more of a texture than a sound.

Kelley O'Connor's "Urlicht" was beyond description, and almost seemed to bring the work to life. I have never, ever been so moved by the opening "O Röschen rot" that just seemed to ignite out of the dark rudeness of the Scherzo. O'Connor's mezzo was dark, but clear; I hope she records the part with a major orchestra someday. A purely magic movement. Ok, I thought about not mentioning the off-the-mark brass in the chorale just after O Röschen rot, but jarring it was and blemished this otherwise incredible movement.

Yet as if inspired by this delicate moment, the orchestra came to life in a thrilling, powerful and dynamic finale. The augmented brass never was harsh or overwhelming, the percussion perfectly integrated into the texture and the woodwinds and strings always bright and precise.

The chorus' hushed entrance "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n" was just heavenly. This well trained and professional group could whisper and yet a moment later bring the old beams of Powell Hall down around us. Brewer (her soprano slowly rising from the hushed chorus was mesmerizing) and O'Connor soared majestically above it all as required, just as comfortable being part of the vocal texture as they were as soloists. Blemishing this otherwise fine movement were the offstage brass which were off tempo and off tune, not well coordinated at all.

The concert was done in memory of longtime chorus member and chorus manager Richard Ashburner, who died all too suddenly and young this past March. There was hardly a dry eye in the chorus or among the soloists and several in the audience as well during the long and well deserved applause.

I know I sound a bit picky, but as my friend and fellow concert goer Steven said, we have a right to be critcal, since as devoted fans of Mahler, we know the music probably as well as any chorus or orchestra member. It was a fine and sometimes glorious Mahler 2, worth the cross state trip for the fine choral and solo performances in the last two movements.

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