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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Concert Review: When Orchestras Attack!

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Saturday night at Carnegie Hall featured the annual visit of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Founded in 1880, the St. Louis forces are America's second-oldest orchestra, and as conductor David Robertson demonstrated, they are one of the most underrated.

The evening opened with an effervescent performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. One of the most enduring examples of 20th century British music, the Tallis Fantasia features three ensembles: a full string orchestra, a smaller ensemble playing in antiphon, and a string quartet--in this case drawn from the SLSO's principal players.

David Robertson led the piece with just the right amount of attaca, producing clean, well-cut phrases from the billowing fabric of the score. He did not allow the meaning of Vaughan Williams' cathedral-like sonic structure to diminish in a wash of pretty sound. The and violin solos were phrased eloquently, and the antiphonal balance was maintained despite having all the musicians packed together on the Carnegie stage.

Thomas Ades' violin concerto Concentric Paths is a muscular, three-movement work. Soloist Leila Josefowicz opened up a dialogue with the full orchestra, playing her instrument with an angry, razor-sharp tone. The first movement featured Bach-like arpeggios led by Ms. Josefowicz.

In the slow second movement, the solo part bobbed and weaved, ducking block-like explosions of percussion and tuba that went off like sonic bombs. The finale featured a dance rhythm not unlike contemporary club or "house" music, but played by the orchestra as contrast to the soaring violin part. This was a tight, well-played, exciting concerto and a good argument for Mr. Ades, an exciting cutting-edge British composer.

Mr. Robertson brought the full force of his orchestra to bear on Tchaikovsky's final symphony, the Pathetique. To that end, he even changed out the principal horns, ensuring that the players would have the necessary resources to make the third-movement march come off without a hitch. The opening movement, with its memorable, descending theme was played with lyricism and longing. The courtly slow movement evoked the glitter of Tchaikovsky's social circle and the composer's own inner doubts.

The famous march featured the best playing of the evening, as the St. Louis brass and horns made the case for the manic side of Tchaikovsky's personality. After allowing the audience to applaud (a tradition at performances of this symphony), Mr. Robertson launched into a passionate, angst-ridden performance of the final slow movement.

This is the the famous cry of despair that seemed to predict both the composer's death and the middle symphonies of Gustav Mahler. It was a compelling finish, and made a case that the St. Louis band deserves a place alongside the "Big Five" American orchestras. "Big Six," perhaps?

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