Sunday, March 20, 2011

St. Louis 2011: An adventurous music urban odyssey

Image borrowed from the Flickr of Matt Scutt; it belongs to him, not me.

It was a disappointing beer list. The blogger handed the menu back to the man behind the counter at the City Diner and said to his friend, “Let’s go.”

Walking back to Powell Hall, they passed a couple of familiar faces from the concert, walking the other way, toward the diner. “There go two of the other bloggers,” his friend said. “Are you sure you don’t want to go back and talk to everybody?”

“The beer list sucks. I’d just drink coffee and get all wired out and talk too much,” the blogger said. “I don’t really have anything to say about the music anyway. I can write music criticism if you pay me, and I’ll come up with a blog post, like I promised the guys at the Symphony, but all I really have to say about a concert like that is: Sex is the only thing better than music. And the love of a child is the only thing better than sex. And that show was as great as music can be. So only sex or the love of a child could be better than that.”

They passed a stout black woman in a police uniform, struggling herself into a rain slicker. It was a rainy night in St. Louis. The blogger loved a rainy night in St. Louis.

“And after music,” the blogger continued, with the felt need to complete a list, once he had started one, “comes booze – beer and wine – and after that, food. Those are the very greatest things.”

They turned the corner on Grand Boulevard at Powell Hall, where they had just sat rapt at the concert for Bloggers Night. They strode down Delmar, on the north boundary of the grand old movie theater turned concert hall. Concert-goers in St. Louis tended to fear parking to the north of events at night. North is perceived as the general direction of poverty and danger in St. Louis (explained by patterns of investment and neglect). The blogger noticed two empty police cruisers were now parked down Delmar where the less fearful concert-goers looked for parking. He and his friend agreed that was a good idea for discouraging street crime and boosting the comfort level of the nighttime concert-goers.

The talk of booze and food had put them back in the mood for those fine things, so the blogger’s friend drove them toward The Tap Room, a nearby brewpub on the outskirts of downtown St. Louis with a long list of delicious homemade beers.

“That was just about as great as music can be,” the blogger said again, repeating himself, as the white van moved through the dark, rain-slickened city streets. “Hearing that entire, gigantic orchestra – I have never seen that many pieces play in this orchestra! – break into that music from Space Odyssey, out of nowhere! My God!”

The concert program had concluded with Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Its swelling, dramatic, brassy opening theme is now famous from its prominent use in the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The blogger reflected that 2001, which had seemed a futuristic date to audiences when Kubrick premiered his film in 1968, was now a decade in the past. Strauss premiered his symphony in 1896, composed in response to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise written in the first half of the 1880s.)

This night, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra had managed to make some of the most familiar music in the symphonic canon new again by breaking into Also Sprach Zarathustra without a pause following the previous piece on the program, a modern tone poem by Gyorgy Ligeti titled Atmospheres. It was an unexpected and stunning move.

“I know,” the blogger’s friend, Paul, said. “I kept closing my eyes, because I wanted the full effect. I wanted nothing but the music. But then I kept having to open my eyes to figure out where the music was coming from.”


They were not the only people in town with the bright idea of finishing an evening of sublime music with delicious homemade beer and good food. Inside the Tap Room, there was a gaggle of people holding instrument cases, waiting to be seated at a table. The blogger and his friend moved past them to take seats at the old bar. One young, tall, frizzy-headed man holding a smaller instrument case (it held a trumpet) was standing there, waiting for his beer.

After establishing that the trumpet player had just performed with the Symphony, the blogger asked him the one thing he really wanted to know about that program – the one reason he regretted not joining the other bloggers and Symphony staffers at the diner: “So, whose idea was it to bust right into the Strauss, without a pause for applause and letting everyone get settled in again for the next piece?”

The trumpet player smiled brightly above his blonde beer. “I don’t know,” he said, in the tone of someone who appreciated a great idea without worrying too much where it came from.

“Was it David’s idea?” the blogger asked. David Robertson was the Symphony’s musical director, though the guest conductor that night had been Carlos Kalmar.

“It was probably David’s idea,” the trumpet player said, “but Carlos pulled it off!” Then he joined one of two large groups of musicians being led across the tavern to adjacent tables. The blogger liked that the two groups of musicians were being seated at adjacent tables. This was their work, and more than 40 musicians had been on stage to play just Also Sprach Zarathustra; it was nice to think they wanted to extend a group experience, rather than take a break from coworkers after many tiring hours of rehearsal and performance. He also liked the easy affirmation of, “But Carlos pulled it off!” – one musician sticking up for another.

The blogger had watched Carlos Kalmar with interest throughout the concert. Conductors are kind of a trip as a human category. Even the most sedate of them jump up and down and have a fit and make the most outlandish and individual gestures with their hands and faces. Carlos Kalmar did not disappoint in this regard, though he left no suggestion of a vapid showman. He just lived the music from the inside-out, like a conductor is supposed to do – he ripped the symphony out of himself and then distributed it around the orchestra, one section, one player at a time.

The blogger also had imagined that he and Carlos Kalmar – born in Uruguay, of Austrian descent – were together with the thoughts on one point. The program had opened with Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which the orchestra ripped right through without so much as a glance at the conductor’s stand. It even seemed like the guest conductor was feeling and calling for slightly different beats and emphases than the orchestra was feeling and playing. On the Liszt, the guest conductor seemed (pleasantly) beside the point of the tightly rehearsed collective of musicians performing together from the page a sharply constructed piece of music. The blogger imagined that Carlos Kalmar recognized this himself, after the band stopped and the audience erupted into applause, when the conductor instantly whipped his hands around the orchestra and had all of the musicians take the first bow – all of them – as a collective.

The blogger was squarely in Carlos Kalmar’s corner just from reading the program notes, where we were told he “resides in Portland, Oregon, and Vienna.” How cooler could you possibly be? To direct a symphony orchestra in a town like Portland, Oregon, while keeping a foot on the Earth in the European city with more collective memory of symphonic music than any other.

Portland! The blogger’s globe-trotting friend Scott Intagliata, itinerant merchant of the temperature control systems of the future, once described Portland as “hipster fantasy camp.” Hipster fantasy camp! But they were in a gritty old river city, home to an orchestra that makes music as well as music can be made, and there is nothing better than that except sex or the love of a child. They were in a river city where it is remembered how to make very good beer. The blogger knew the barman, who poured them delicious homemade ales.

The barman had given some thought to the symphony’s program that night himself. He said, “Ligeti’s son is coming to St. Louis.” Ligeti was the composer of Atmospheres, the piece that had bled into Zarathustra in that night’s concert. Talk about hipster fantasy camp, or fantasy camp for serious enthusiasts of adventurous music, as St. Louis always is. The barman came back with scrap of paper, scrawled with, “Ligeti’s son, April 29th @ FoPoCoCo.” That’s Forest Park Community College. The barman tipped the blogger to consult his own blog for more information.

So it had turned into a Symphony Bloggers Night out, after all.

St. Louis is a magic city. Many people have felt this, and there is no need to defend the feeling against those who disbelieve in enchantment or disregard St. Louis (by comparison to Portland, or Vienna). St. Louis is a city where you can leave the brassy heights of Also Sprach Zarathustra and walk into a bar where you end up talking to one of the trumpet players (four, total, in this score!) who just scaled its heights. Then, turn from the beer-sipping Symphony trumpet player to a poetry-slinging bartender who just got done looking out a Southern-exposure window in St. Louis, listening to the Ligeti composition that bled into Zarathustra that night. And he has the drop on Ligeti’s son coming to town that spring.

The blogger turned to his friend and said, “Isn’t tonight something special with the moon? Isn’t the moon closer to Earth tonight than it’s been in, like, 18 years?”

“Yeah,” Paul said, “but, the clouds. You can’t see the moon.” And then he drove them home through the nighttime city in the rain.