Sunday, January 16, 2011

The mountain, the sea, and that fragile relationship that is life

"Never seen no mountain. Never swam in no sea."

This complaint from Paul Westerberg of The Replacements (in "Within Your Reach") always spoke to me. I grew up in a small Midwestern steel town in the Mississippi River Valley. It was a long time before I saw a mountain or swam in a sea.

I have always considered this a net benefit, because it left me easy to impress and open to new experiences. It was not possible, starting where I started, to think you had seen it all, because you knew there were mountains and oceans, yet had seen and swam in none.

In a similar vein, St. Louis was always the big city across the river to me. Coming across the river from Granite City, I was always embarassed for the locals who copped a snoot on St. Louis because they had been to New York or Chicago and thought the lights a little too small for them here. I just saw big lights, and giant experiences, in St. Louis.

I keep seeing it that way. Last Wednesday I took Adam Long to see a performance in the stylus Concert Series at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. This is where David Robertson, musical director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, puts together concerts around the installation at the Pulitzer. I just keep shaking my head (that's SMH, to the text message generation) at the level of creative genius being programmed in and for St. Louis.

The show Wednesday, Adam and I agreed, started at its peak, musically and conceptually, and then descended steadily, but not very far, throughout the sequence of three compositions. In fact, the third (and still wholly wonderful) piece on the program is structured around the ascent and descent of a mountain approached, and then departed, by sail on the sea.

Now I've seen a mountain. Now I have swam in a sea.

The show opened with La Souris sans sourire, performed by a string quartet with David Robertson admiring from a front-row seat. This is a 1988 composition by Franco Donatoni, and please don't feel like you're behind the game if you have never heard of it. My concert guest Adam Long is a cellist with a yen for modern composers and it was all new to him (and me).

I have found a YouTube posting of a good performance of the piece, though it doesn't specify the performers; a friend at the symphony asked David Robertson to suggest the best recording for me, and David could think of none.

The performers at the Pulitzer were Emily Ho (violin), Jooyeon Kong (violin), Shannon Farrell Williams (viola) and Melissa Brooks (cello). They succeeded completely in casting the spell of this music. David Robertson talked at some length about the title of the piece, which you might translate as The Mouse without a Smile, and Donatoni's many plays on words. David prepared us to hear the composition as playing on music the way the title plays on words; and though Donatoni's mouse may have been sans smile, Adam Long and I grinned all the way through it.

We had an aerial view of the action. The physical space of the Pulitzer has the feeling of being carved out of the corners of other spaces. The main seating for the basement floor concert stage are the wide steps walking down to it, which had filled up before we arrived. We stepped past the folding chairs at the top of the steps to stand along the railing looking down at the musicians. The view from there was good, but with Adam standing in front of me I had to thump him to get his attention and share smiles.

"I have recorded the cello player, Melissa Brooks," Adam whispered, after one time I thumped him. Adam records, mixes and masters music for a living.

Between compositions, as the string quartet was replaced on the basement floor concert stage by a solo horn player (Roger Kaza), Adam and I quickly shared geeky delight in the fact that we were seeing one of the greatest shows on Earth tonight, right at home in St. Louis. Adam is from Minneapolis, same city as Paul Westerberg; he also knows what it's like to have never seen a mountain, never swam in no sea.

This feeling of astonishing uniqueness went for a long, pleasant stroll during the performance of the next piece on the program, In Freundschaft by Karlheinz Stockhausen. This is a long, slow, solo piece, most often performed on clarinet, though I adored Roger Kaza's performance on horn. It included a lengthy interruption where Kaza very deliberately cleaned the saliva out of the bell of his horn before stuffing one fist in there to act as a mute.

Before the performance, David Robertson told us how long the piece lasts, I think so that no one made the mistake of applauding the apparent completion of the piece when Kaza stopped playing to dry the spit in his horn, which happened early in the composition. "Here is the place where you let the instrument use the restroom," David described this moment, after Kaza had finished his performance.

David described Stockhausen himself - controversial, as modern composers go - as "a wacko, but a sweet wacko". He expanded in this mood when introducing the final piece on the program, Groundswell by Steven Mackey. "Steven is a native Californian, and we are always the wacky ones," said David, a son of Santa Monica. He free-associated the names of other wacky Californians, thinking of John Cage and Gertrude Stein - a fascinating short list of native Californians perhaps no one else would have assembled.

I would rather listen to David Robertson talk about music than hear most people perform it; and Adam and I agreed that David's remarks on Groundswell were even more entertaining than Mackey's composition and the performance of it - by a superb ad hoc chamber group comprised of the string quartet from The Mouse without a Smile, joined by Weijing Wang (viola), Philip Ross (oboe), Thomas Jostlein (horn), Linda Phipps (clarinet/bass clarinet) and Peter Henderson (piano). David Robertson stayed out of his front-row seat and conducted this one.

Groundswell is a fine musical expression of climbing and descending a mountain, and was performed with expression and unity; but after the surreal mysticism of the Donatoni and the profound inwardness of the Stockhausen, it fell just slightly flat. On a different program, with lesser compositions and performances surrounding it, it would have had much more of an impact, I am certain, because I was thrilled throughout.

And, then, I was more than thrilled.

After such a striking night of original music, in such a unique and rarified space, the last thing the musical director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra needed to do was make a closing reference to a stunning public tragedy. But this is David Robertson we are talking about, and he is the kind of person who makes his own rules and sets his own standards.

Such music as what we had just experienced, David said - making explicit reference to the recent massacre in Tucson, and tearing up without affectation - reminds us "how lucky we are and how important it is to maintain that fragile relationship that is life."


The photo is mine - a sunset in Santa Monica.

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