St. Louis Symphony
David Robertson, conductor
Leila Josefowicz, violin
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25, "Classical" (1916-17)
Thomas Ades: Violin Concerto (Concentric Paths) (2005)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade, op. 35 (1888)
My husband was a storyteller. At his best, he could have everyone in the bar on the edges of their stools as he described characters and situations in simple but compelling story lines, adding in just enough detail to beguile - such as the plink! of a sweat drop off the Navy cook's nose, into the chicken soup - to make his listeners care what happened next. He never set himself up as smarter than others, and he didn't work at humor; it was inherent in his stories.
Maestro David Robertson pointed out that storytelling is not only the inspiration for "Sheherazade" - it is also the fabric of the piece, as Rimsky-Korsakov uses simple but compelling musical motives to set masculine against feminine, evoke the rolling waves of Sinbad, or hold the listener captive with exquisite timing. In his notes before Friday night's performance, Robertson gave us the story behind the story: Sheherazade, trying to save her own life, beguiling with simplicity and duplicity, hiding behind layers of veils her own mental superiority to the Sultan.
The stories of 1001 Arabian Nights are familiar to most of us, but Robertson lifted a veil or two to show the audience what Rimsky-Korsakov chose to highlight. With the great, striding, opening chords - not unlike the opening of The Wall, but without the synchronized fireworks - we meet an angry, powerful despot. "You wouldn't want to meet him on a dark night," Robertson assures us. The voice of the storyteller, in concertmaster David Halen's solo violin, weaves and winds and insinuates around these self-important chords to create an opening for the stories to unfold.
I love David Halen's violin playing like I love Mark Knopfler's guitar, so I was pleased to see him playing the storyteller. Like many of the great soloists I have seen at Powell Hall, he doesn't apparently put the bow anywhere near the strings; the sound seems to be formed of the air itself. Once attuned to it, I could hear how the solo violin passages never resolve - never "bring us back to Do" with finality - but always tantalize and lead into each new story.
The stories themselves are deliberately left to the listener's imagination, and this listener didn't bother. You don't always need narrative. Music, the ultimate abstract art form, can carry us away without external references. Aboard Sinbad's ship, I don't need to walk across the deck to feel the power of the waves; I may choose to listen to the seabirds and feel the spray of salt water on my cheek, while ignoring the work of the ship and the mission of her captain. Or I can listen to the voice of the bassoon, rising above the cacophony of strings as a singer in a crowded marketplace, and I may choose to block out all but the sweet, multicolored resonance of the tenor soloist. (Again, I had insider knowledge here: "Sheherazade" is a standard bassoon audition piece, and no wonder.) That doesn't mean I'm not experiencing the market, just that I'm not buying anything today.
The composer gave us audio signposts as check-in points, but Sheherazade beguiles each of us in a private, personal way.
Robertson evidently felt those audio signposts would be needed in Thomas Ades' violion concerto, Concentric Paths. He took time on stage, during the concert, to walk the audience through some of the themes we'd be hearing. First he asked the soloist, Leila Josefowicz, to give us a sample of her part (one circular path); then he asked the orchestra to play for us the same few measures, so we could hear the different circular themes moving like clockwork against one another. But when he raised his baton, only a handful of musicians lifted their instruments. "This is everybody!" he called out, as apparently his orchestra was inattentive. (I'm told that it's very hard for orchestra members to hear the conductor when he's speaking to the audience - even, or especially, if he's using a microphone.)
Josefowicz has an assertive body language when she plays. She thrusts with shoulders and hips to punctuate a passage, and there were a couple of sharply accented pizzicato plucks on which she jutted her jaw forward, looking like she would spit on the conductor!
Before the concert, Maestro used a number of metaphors to try and show us what's happening in the piece: "It's like you're on a merry-go-round, and nothing really changes," he said. Or on a ferris wheel. Or the solo violin is like a paper boat on the edge of whirlpool, going around and around, not concerned by the eddies and whirlpools underneath it.
Despite Robertson's efforts, I didn't find the piece very accessible; but I blame that on myself, for not knowing enough to hear the interplay of the themes. Some other patrons around me were less kind. "I wish she'd just played the Bach," grumbled one, referring to the sample partita Robertson had her demo for contrast. Another asked - without apparent irony - "Why do they play such old violins?" (The program notes indicate that Ms. Josefowicz "performs on a Del Gesu made in 1724.") Her companion replied, teasing, "Maybe she doesn't make enough to buy a new one!"
But I'm with Robertson: it's time to do something new with the violin concerto. Through Robertson' ears and words, I learned a little bit about composing, and caught a glimpse of the composer's ideas. That I am not moved by those ideas just means I'm not ready to receive them. I hope he continues to set them loose, and that they find open minds in which to flourish. In fact, I'm thinking I'll look for a recording of this piece so I can get more familiar with it, and maybe learn to hear a few of the spiraling rotations that Maestro tried so hard to draw for us.
My seat, this concert season - which was presented to the symphony in memory of Mrs. Samuel J. McPheeters, according to the plate on the back of it - is so far forward that I can really only see the strings and the soloists. (But I can see them extraordinarily well.) Of the winds, my only joyous glimpse was a disembodied hand rising at the back of the stage to insert a huge mute into a tuba. So I watched a lot of bowing, and realized for the first time how VISUAL a fortissimo ending can be: when the violins all raise their bows, it's like an exclamation point.
I also saw a couple of techniques I couldn't name. What do you call it when they just bounce their bows on the string? Someone suggested spiccato, which sounds like a cooking technique. "I'll have the veal spiccato, please." Later, admiring principal cellist Daniel Lee's position (he leans his head forward next to the fingerboard as if listening for the whispers of a lover), I noticed that he was using a finger to rub on a string. So were the rest of the strings, once I broadened my field of vision. My informant says this is a technique that sounds dreadful if it isn't done properly, but hey, this was the St. Louis Symphony! It was done properly.