Saturday, September 17, 2011

St Louis Symphony: Three Stravinsky Masterpieces

With the gala grand opening of the new Kauffman Center for the Arts in full swing, September 16th, 2011 was probably the most important day for classical music in this town since some early settler took his or her fiddle and eked out a Schubert tune or maybe a bit of Bach. So what did I do to celebrate? I left town.

I was not invited nor had the mega bucks to attend so Dunbar the faithful Buick and I headed across the state to hear the more affordable (even with the price of gas) opening performance of the St Louis Symphony. In a concert that New Yorker Magazine critic Alex Ross called a "humdinger", Music Director David Robertson led the orchestra and chorus in three Stravinsky masterpieces, "Petrushka", "Les Noces" and "Le Sacre de Printemps". Stravinsky's arrangement of the "Star Spangled Banner" opened the eve, Robertson invited the audience to sing along.

Of course I went for "Les Noces", a vocal/choral tour-de-force ballet-cantata for 4 solo voices (a fine line up of Dominique Labelle, Kelly O'Connor, Thomas Cooley and Richard Paul Fink), 4 pianos and percussion. It took me a long time to warm up to and appreciate this unique work. Written in the early 1920s and premiered in June 1923, Les Noces  (The Wedding) is an earthy, vibrant and ultimately rewarding evocation of a Russian peasant wedding. It has to be a royal bitch to sing for all involved with its declamatory chant, high tessitura, and fast, complex rthythms. The relentless chiming of the dry, high pianos and frequent use of metallic percussion makes for a dramatic, driving texture and makes balancing the ensemble critical.

Last night's performance was nothing short of unforgettable. The 4 soloists were incredible, special note to Dominique Labelle who negotiated the soprano's (Bride) throat killing lines with ease and musicality. It can easily descend into shouting and screaming. O'Connor and Labelle were magnificent in the almost tear jerking mother and bride duet. Cooley and Thomas both could conjure a deep Russian sound but a couple times got swallowed up in the sound in some of the more thick scored passages with the whole ensemble and chorus. Their duet in "The Bridegroom's House", evoking God and the Saints to bless the union, was also a highlight. Cooley's final serenade to the Bride, an exhortation of earthly lust, assumption of primacy in the marriage and tender feelings for his bride was one of those goose bump raising moments in music.

I can not say enough about the St Louis Symphony Chorus who precisely and clearly whispered, shouted, chanted and chugged along, never just a backdrop but an integral part of the drama. The percussion and pianos were well in tune and together, dry as Stravinsky wanted. The final ringing chords were incredible, allowing the subtle harmonies and overtones present to bring the work to a satisfying close.

After listening to it again, maybe it was multiple attempts to like Stravinsky's English language, languid recording that delayed my admiration of this piece. His version never clicked and the English took away all the deep sonorous Russian soul. Ancerl's on Supraphon is the one to have.. or tune in to KWMU and listen to the live broadcast on Saturday.

It is hard to imagine masterworks like Petrushka and Le Sacre taking a back seat, but for me they were just icing on the cake. The demanding program made for an opera length evening as two intermissions were required to clear the whole orchestra from Petrushka, set up the pianos for Les Noces and then set up the huge forces for Le Sacre. It made for good sales at the concessions I am sure.

Sadly, the evening's disappointment was an under-rehearsed, slack Petrushka. Plagued with ensemble issues, iffy intonation, horn bobbles and a general lack of propulsion, it never quite jelled. The performance was video narrated with scenes and drawings from the original production, but were sometimes hard to see with the microphone wires in front and the general glare of the orchestra lighting.

I could point out all the disappointing moments but that is pedantic. Principal flute Mark Sparks' solo in the first Tableau could truly have brought a puppet to life with its sincere and deep expression and perfect phrasing. Peter Henderson handled the extensive piano part with grace and propulsive force, until Stravinsky just seems to forget about it in the 3rd and 4th tableaux. Not a total write off, but the piece never danced.

Maybe after the electrical Les Noces, Robertson and the whole orchestra got energized as Le Sacre received a most exciting and technically excellent reading. Scenes from the ballet and drawings from the original choreography were also projected on the screen. Right from the misty, primeval opening, Robertson and company dug into this complex and colorful score. The Dance of the Adolescents was appropriately clumsy and knock-kneed. The round dance was trance like and ritualistic, perfectly realized. The Sages emerged from the depths with frightening power and swaggering violence, you could see them knocking the children and animals out of the way of their sacred procession. The violent awaking of the earth was simply shattering, but the famous frosty chord before the awakening of the earth was a bit weak and not together.  The final Danse Sacrale was the epitome of controlled fury. Even conductor Robertson was propelled by the power of the music as he danced his way to a most satisfying and terrifying conclusion, which in some performances comes off more like an accident rather than an exhausted collapse.

I am sure the orchestra did an exhausted collapse as well after this demanding yet satisfying program. Kudos to all and to Maestro Robertson for the courage to do it!

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