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Monday, March 12, 2012

Concert Review: The Phoenix Force

The St. Louis Symphony returns to Carnegie Hall. 
by Paul Pelkonen
The "Phoenix Force" from Classic X-Men No. 8. 
Art by John Bolton© 1988 Marvel Comics. 
Licensed through Wikipedia.
Founded in 1880, the  St. Louis Symphony is the second-oldest major American orchestra. But in today's classical music world, the accolades and exposure enjoyed by the "Big Five" continues to elude the ensemble from the Gateway City. 

On Saturday night, the orchestra made its annual visit to Carnegie Hall, under the baton of current music director David Robertson. The program featured early works by Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, and the New York premiere of Quatre Instants, (Four Instances) a song cycle by current Carnegie Hall composer-in-residence Kaija Saariaho. 

The concert opened with Printemps, an early example of Debussy's innovative approach to tonality. This 15-minute tone poem (originally created for the piano) finds the young composer trying to shrug off the effect of the flowery perfumes of Wagner's Parsifal. With mysterious, minor-key ninth chords and a solo flute that presages the latter adventures of a certain faun, the composer succeeded. 

Ms. Saariaho's song cycle uses French texts (instead of her native Finnish) to paint four images of the different stages of a relationship. The songs, with words by Amin Maalouf, were sung to thrilling effect by Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano whose searing delivery and magnetic stage presence made each chanson a probing, psychological journey. Attente used water imagery to project the coming instability. Doleur was a picture of self-castigation. And Parfum de l'instant had a smoky, atmospheric texture of need and regret.

The sparse orchestral textures and innovative accompaniment built to a climax with Résonances, the last of the four songs. Here, soprano, poet and composer brought back themes from the three previous songs, creating a tragic portrait of a shattered heart. Mr. Robertson proved an expert collaborator, working closely with the singer to deliver the maximum emotional impact of each piece.

The second half of the concert featured a full performance of The Firebird, the ballet score that made Igor Stravinsky a household name. Mr. Robertson led a slow, atmospheric account of the score, letting the instrumental textures shimmer and the woodwinds pop out for the occasional solo. This was Stravinsky's music at its most romantic, with the influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov clearly heard.

With its fortissimo sections--particularly the two frenzied dances of Katschei the Immortal--this Firebird spread its wings and burst into full flame. The dances were played with rude, primal energy. Offstage brass (placed in the lower balcony) added to the enveloping wall of sonic power. The bright acoustic of Carnegie Hall seemed to surround and engulf the listener.

The famous final section, where Stravinsky resolves plot and tonality with a simple, descending figure for French horn, swelled with redemptive power. Mr. Robertson brought in the strings, creating an upswelling of emotion. As the final chords crashed down, the audience rose in a ten-minute standing ovation. This superb orchestra had earned it.

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