Saturday, November 29, 2008

Orli Shaham may or may not have large hands

I wouldn't want to suggest from this sketch of Orli Shaham performing last night with The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra that she has especially large hands. I wouldn't know. I couldn't see her hands very well from our (excellent) seats, but I could see them better than her face, which was mostly turned away from us, toward the other musicians and conductor Marc Albrecht.

Deprived of the basic elements of what critic Stephen Lindsley has described as my "elementary visual vocabulary" - which I would specify as slightly Africanizing caricatures of people's faces - I just blew her hands up big and then spent most of the rest of the piece she performed approximating the detail in the pattern of her blouse.

I thought it was a tightly executed and exciting performance of Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 which, as Paul Schiavo's always artful program notes explain, the composer wrote and nearly completed on his deathbed as a posthumous meal ticket for his wife, who was a concert pianist.

Not appreciating the morbid overtones here, but our guest concert pianist last night also is the wife of a musical force, SLSO musical director David Robertson, who had the night off. The little old lady next to me (who spent the first half of intermission disparaging Orli's outfit, and the second half disparaging herself for having disparaged Orli) reported that Orli and David's twins were at the concert, so perhaps David was in attendance as well, in his role as happy father.

I did contrubute to the flagging consumer economy by buying one of the CDs of music performed by Orli and the other key musical man in her life, her brother Gil Shaham, but - doh! -I bought it after the concert, rather than during intermission, when she would have been there to sign CDs ... or, in my case, to sign my sketch of her. Having failed to exploit my connections at the orchestra to invite myself over to Orli and David's home to observe her rehearse for this performance, I will now see what I can do about securing a signature after the fact.

Orli performs the same program, themed "Tricksters," with the Symphony tonight (Saturday) at 8 p.m. The program is clever on several levels. On the weekend of an American holiday widely associatied with game fowl, it opens with a piece of music with another edible bird in its title, Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, which may lack the name magic of more famous family-friendly fare, but still would have held the attention of many children. The first half closed with the Bartok - a very dynamic set piece for a night of lighter fare.

The second half consisted of two Strauss tone poems, Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. This was when the guest composer came alive and showed why he was up there on the stand. I don't usually have much to say either way about a guest composer working in David Robertson's house, but Albrecht lives these fanciful pieces by Strauss on his fingertips, along the edges of his eyelashes, deep in his guts. He was fun to watch, and he helped to make the orchestra a delight to hear!

And, then, there was the tryptophan factor - these four pieces clock in at 16, 23, 17 and 15 minutes, respectively. Not only is this the right way to program a Thanksgiving weekend concert, I'd take it just about any night of the year. Sometimes, that 50 minute symphony after the intermission has a narcoleptic power that is tough to shake.

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