Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Nightingale's Song at Powell in a rainy season

Possibly it has always been true, but most of us these days are not taught the things we really need to know and are left to ourselves to learn them for ourselves.

I feel fortunate, first, to have survived into adulthood, and then to have emerged with abundant curiosity and gumption to venture into the places where it might have been said by others that I didn't belong.

One such place is Powell Hall. When I was younger and had far less money but much more freedom in time, I bought season tickets in the nosebleeds, and sat up there rapt with wonder, learning how symphonies move and even the names of instruments in the orchestra.

I knew so little; had so much to learn. Now I only know the proverbial more that alerted me to the vaster more I have yet to learn.

Friday night at Powell, not in the nosebleeds, I learned more about how a symphonic poem, as opposed to a symphony proper, moves. The program opened with Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, a symphonic poem that follows the rhythm of a story, rather than historic expectations as to the structured movements of composed music.

It occured to me that this kind of music is not about movement at all, but rather space. I had a strikingly visual experience of the music, as David Robertson brought alive different sections of The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and even individual players, with waves of his wand and magic little puffs from his fingers.

Song of the Nightingale is a tentative, atomised, delicate piece of music, a dreamscape, and the way David led the band through its changes was a revelation to me.

I dream when awake with intensity, and resist being shook from my dreams, so I remained absorbed in the Stravinsky and my new sense of space in music throughout the next piece of music, which was the anchor of the program.

This was Tan Dun's Water Concerto, featuring Colin Currie guesting on lead percussion. There is an undeniable wow factor to this piece, because it introduces big glass bowls of water into the orchestra as musical instruments.

Traditional African music is one of those other things I wasn't supposed to find, but found, and have dreamed into with intensity; and I have in my possession numerous recordings of African villagers making music by splashing in water. I am down with this sort of thing and adored seeing it melded into symphonic repertoire.

Even more to my liking was the play with overtones. Currie and two house percussionists also bowed and struck some odd instruments I have never seen before, creating eeries overtones. The same effect was made by bowing a gong and dipping the gong into the water. The score called for violins and other instruments with high registers to echo these overtones and embellish them. This made for brilliantly colorful splashes of sound that hearkened back, tonally, to the Stravinsky.

But I thought the performance Friday night had some problems. The orchestra didn't seem to be hearing Currie very well. The rhymic interaction between his playing and the band as a whole seemed, often, to be off. This would be understandable when the instrument was something as evanescent as water, but I found the disconnect more dismaying when he was rapping out louder beats on more solid instruments.

If I'm right about this - and the disconnection could be integral to the score; I don't know - then I expect David Robertson will fix this before they take this show on the road to Carnegie Hall.

That's the other thing I have learned about music from this orchestra - in this case, at rehearsals, rather than concerts. If the conductor looks superfluous on the bandstand at the concert - most of the time, most of the musicians don't even look at him - that's because he really earns his keep at rehearsal.

That's when he stops the band, stamps out the proper rhythm, sings the accurate pitch, redirects the players to the starting place in the score, and has them hit it again. David Robertson takes musicians through this process with a joy and generosity that must make him a very pleasant man to work with and for.

But really, my biggest problem with the Water Concerto was not the orchestra's performance of it, in tandem with Colin Currie. The problem was, it wasn't the Stravinsky, and I wasn't finished thinking about the Stravinsky. I am thinking about it still.


The image is of Joan Miro's painting The Nightingale's Song at Midnight and the Morning Rain


Noted with shame: I spent the seven days previous to this concert in virtual quarantine with an H1N1-addled child and desperately was needing some social life. My friend Bradley Bowers was hosting an open house to share some of his art work before it gets shipped off to a gallery elsewhere, and a number of other friends were expected to attend. So I skipped out of the second half of this program. It pains me to have missed the Bright Sheng and the Bartok, but a man also must be a friend.

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