October 22, 2017
Composition choices give entire orchestra chance to shine
David Robertson and Orli Shaham
David Robertson and Orli Shaham

By John Huxhold

The St. Louis Symphony concert Saturday night at Powell Hall included a lot of references to family. On the program was Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy,” a reflection on the star-crossed lovers caught between the warring Montagues and Capulets.

Widely acknowledged as the composer’s first masterpiece, the conflicts between the two households plus the affection of the young couple are presented in stark contrasts including the famous, soaring love theme.

The strings poured on the passion while the brass snarled magnificently. It was a performance that was as suave and sexy as the cover of the CD released by the Symphony on RCA in 1995—perhaps the raciest ever for a classical album.

“Your conductor for the evening” as he introduced himself was David Robertson. After the Tchaikovsky, Robertson’s wife, pianist Orli Shaham, joined him on stage for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

They met in St. Louis in 1999 during his first appearance with the orchestra when she was also the featured soloist, so in this, his final season, it seemed appropriate that she should appear with him again. They have obvious personal as well as musical chemistry; her dark velvet gown with a many-sequined collar added to the celebratory atmosphere.

Speaking of sparkles, Rachmaninoff can pack more notes into a measure with the best of them, and they poured out of the piano in shimmering cascades, all of which were negotiated without a hitch. Hands crossing over each other always came down in the correct spot; loud passages were not attacked so much as leaned into with solid control; all the melodies, especially the famous 18th variation, had a natural flow and sensitive rubato.

Her arms sometimes danced but mainly they floated as if caressing the keyboard rather than striking it. The extended standing ovation by the audience was rewarded with a lovely, quiet encore — the Prelude in B minor by J. S. Bach.

Several years ago the Robertson/Shaham family became friends with the composer Steven Mackey (at the time both families had young children about the same age). That association brought about a couple of premieres by the Symphony. One was his violin concerto “A Beautiful Passing” in 2008. The other was when Robertson suggested that Mackey write something for Shaham; the result was “Stumble to Grace” in 2011.

Mackey’s more recent composition (2015) was the only work before intermission and lasted about 40 minutes. “Mnemosyne’s Pool” uses a large orchestra with so much percussion paraphernalia (including three bicycle bells) spread across the entire back wall of the stage that it took five lines of small type to list them all in the program.

Each of its five movements contains a wealth of orchestral color and tonal variety, creating a lush, dense sound — a welcome change from some contemporary music that is more stark and confrontational to the ear. Lots of intersecting and interlocking rhythmic patterns — some bluesy, some as crisp as neo-classic Stravinsky — were tossed back and forth between movements as well as between sections of the orchestra with variations popping up along the way. Spritely little dance motifs like falling rain in the woodwinds would morph seamlessly into slower, more languid patterns in the strings.

Along the way every section of the orchestra got a chance to show off, the percussion section first among equals, with all the players using various extended techniques adding to the rich, intricate texture. Mackey has said that he writes music that is “very layered” and this work is exhibit A.

While it may not have the monumental structure of, say, Mahler, it is nevertheless music with great emotional depth. With its distinctive sound and many musical rewards, this is a work that bears repeated listening and, hopefully, a permanent place in the repertoire.

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