I was stuck in traffic coming in the Lincoln Tunnel last night, and so I had to hear the start of last night's St. Louis Symphony concert from the foyer. Fortunately, the last box at the end of the first tier had left their curtain open, so I was able to hear pretty clearly the Adagio from Gustav Mahler's 10th Symphony, left unfinished at his death in 1911. The orchestra played with a big, lush sound, precisely what the music demands.
The outstanding American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham - a late replacement for soprano Dawn Upshaw - joined the orchestra for Maurice Ravel's Scheherezade, an early work full of oriental exoticism. She made a grand entrance wearing a plunging silk dress in sunset colors, accented with massive diamond chokers on her neck and wrist. But it was her powerful, Earth Mother voice that truly grabbed the attention of the audience, prompting spontaneous applause after the first section, "Asia".
While the uptight laid in with their predictable "Ssshhh's," Robertson turned around, nodded, and said, "Hey, when you like something, you like something." The crowd erupted in laughter and applause. (BTW - the tradition of no applause between movements is a relatively recent one.) Graham and the orchestra proceeded without further interruption, and she and the orchestra were rewarded with a huge ovation.
Conductor David Robertson's affinity for the music of American composer John Adams is well-established: when he brought the SLSO here last season, they performed On The Transmigration of Souls, Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning composition commemorating the events of September 11, 2001. And, in 2004, he conducted the New York Philharmonic in a parks concert that featured Adams' Harmonielehre (1985), a performance which was surprisingly visceral given the outdoor setting.
Robertson asked permission to say a few words before last night's performance of Harmonielehre, which he explained is German for "treatise on harmony," and is named after Arnold Schoenberg's book of the same title, written in 1910. In it, Schoenberg states that all new music must be rooted in the classical traditions of harmony and counterpoint, a point of view he later abandoned when his music became defiantly atonal, spawning the dominant - and, many would say, disagreeable -12 tone school of composition. But it is this earlier, Romantic Schoenberg that Adams' gravitates towards, and the title reflects his desire to marry a predominantly harmonic idiom to the rhythmic, repetitive language of Minimalism, the style in which Adams composed early in his career. Harmonielehre, then, is Adams' definitive artistic statement: it declares that the only way to innovate is to pay heed to the full tapestry of musical development.
The music itself unfolds like a glacier: massive, relentless, overpowering everything in it's path, leaving in it's wake a fresh, fertile landscape. Robertson has clearly spent a great deal of time with this work, and often conducted as if in a trance. The players followed him willingly, playing with driving power and mournful finesse, as required.
The work finished with a huge, building wall of sound which shook the hall like an oncoming train, and after the final dominant chord, the crowd leapt to their feet in approval. Clearly, this well-established orchestra is thriving under Robertson, who is only in his second season as their Music Director, but already seems well on his way to re-establishing St. Louis as a major center for music in this country.
Adams himself will be on the podium on April 27th, conducting the American Composers Orchestra in an all-Adams program, in celebration of his 60th birthday. Tickets are very reasonably priced, with most seats going for only $16. Should be a big night.