Friday, January 30, 2009

Plain, intense, searching talk around a small table

It's sort of hard to imagine someone will read a few words here and then run right out on their otherwise unscheduled Saturday night to see The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, but the possibility someone might do so is the only reason I am doing this.

I saw the Symphony's Friday matinee this morning. It was sublime. They do the same show again Saturday night at 8 p.m. I would go see it again if I didn't have a date with a five year old.

The program involves two premieres for the orchestra: Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4 and Dance Figures by the contemporary composer George Benjamin.

In a perfect parallel I have come to associate with musical director David Robertson, the other two pieces are a little more familiar and accessible - Richard Strauss' Burleske in D Minor - and a lot more familiar and accessible - Haydn's Symphony No. 92 (the only KWMUesque snoozer, to my temperament).

I have a small collection of Szymanowski on CD and have an ear for his odd mishmash of musical elements - he was a Ukrainian who had a yen for Arabic culture and the Near East and liked to break the rules - but I'll admit something really stupid.

The booklet had the Strauss piece second on the program and Szymanowski last. They switched their orders. I didn't notice the insert pointing this out until intermission - that is, until after I had listened to the Szymanowski doing my damndest to hear it as a Strauss piece. I recommend this for a Jorge Luis Borges fiction experiment, but it's no way to hear a Szymanowski composition for the first time!

I was better prepared for the Benjamin and the Strauss. Benjamin's piece is a fluid, minimal passage through nine miniatures, each intended for choreography, and involving tonal experiments you don't often hear from a symphony orchestra, not even David Robertson's. One passage sounded like nothing so much as the rhythmic and melodic whipping of plastic Hot Wheels tracks in the wind. It was violins, somehow, doing that. Uncanny.

Strauss' Burleske was something else again. Guest artist Emanuel Ax took over on this one, without upstaging the conductor or the orchestra. Quite the contrary. Playing without a score, he was in constant communication with David and the other players, especially timpanist Richard Holmes.

In the closing moments of the performance, the communication between these three men - these three musicians (David conducts very much like a player) - was intense, palpable, human. I'd say "cinematic," but it was much more intimate than that. Much more real and in your face. It was plain, intense, searching talk around a small table. It left me speechless.


This old Polaroid of mine is the only thing I could find at the moment that visually suggests the intensity and immediacy that I am talking about here, though it has nothing to do with music or conversation.

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