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Open Door to the Wilderness

New York
Carnegie Hall (Isaac Stern Auditorium)
02/16/2008 -  
Johannes Brahms: Tragic Overture
Alban Berg: Violin Concerto
Jean Sibelius: Tapiola
John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony (New York premiere)

Christian Tetzlaff (Violin)
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson (Music Director and Conductor)

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, St. Louis was the doorway to the American wilderness, the Mississippi River port taking the adventurous, the misfits, the pioneers and poets to a virtual Terra Incognita. Today, under David Robertson, the St. Louis Symphony’s own direction leads to the unknown. And that Missouri embarkation town must be all the better for it.

At first glance, St. Louis today is obsessed with lesser trio of Three B’s: baseball, beer and (warmed-over) blues. But when Maestro Robertson brought his fine ensemble to New York this week, he didn’t pay homage to the mundane. As one of the three donors behind John Adams’ Symphony (with Carnegie Hall and the BBC), the orchestra stands behind one of America’s truly great composers. Scheduling Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, he may have played the most “popular” 12-tone work in existence, but to mainstream Carnegie Hall audiences, it was still fairly revolutionary.

True, the Brahms overture and Sibelius tone-poem were hardly avant-garde, but their familiarity gave a chance to hear the orchestra as a good ensemble. And from the two sharp opening chords of the Tragic Overture, resounding through Carnegie Hall, it was obvious that the orchestra is beautifully disciplined group. The Sibelius Tapiola, his last major piece, may not be the most thrilling work of the Finn, but the final moments gave that stunning string choir a muscular workout.

One of the two major attractions, though, was Berg’s Violin Concerto, a requiem “to the memory of an angel”, a girl who died too young, yet (like Mozart’s last work) Berg’s own requiem since he died before hearing it. Its wonder is not so much the use of the 12-tone row, but its memories of other times. A Viennese waltz, a kind of yodeling, a folk-tune, and of course the almost literal Bach chorale, “It is enough.”

The 41-year-old Christian Tetzlaff has virtually made a career of playing the most difficult works, but not once did he let down his guard. From the first almost wary arpeggios, he worked his way into this most romantic work with the most lavish playing. It is undoubtedly a technical nightmare, but one never felt Tetzlaff “reaching” for the notes. With the help of some wondrous solo work by the St. Louis Orchestra, it was a concerto which could be remote, lonely, offering snatches of folk and acne music as if under a veil.

While the end was a tonal triumph, Tetzlaff played, as an encore, a Bach Andante which seemed to be a natural appendix to the Berg itself.

John Adams was in the audience to hear the New York premiere of a symphony he made from his recent opera, Doctor Atomic. While symphonies from operas are fairly rare (Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler is the best known), this is a curious 24-minute piece. And without reading his program notes – which gave the story of five events from the opera – then it was only an Adams tour de force for the orchestra. I was happy to know that the “boorish trombone” was supposed to be a boorish General. It was nice to know that the solo trumpet was reciting a John Donne sonnet. (Both Timothy Myers and Susan Slaughter were excellent.)

Apparently, this 24-minute piece was half the duration of the original Symphony, and it certainly didn’t feel its length, filled with Adams’ very accessible trademarks. David Robertson did a very creditable job but hopes are high that the original opera will make its way to New York as soon as possible.

Harry Rolnick



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