Robertson, St. Louis Symphony inflame and illuminate Debussy, Monk and Tchaikovsky

Sat Mar 21, 2015 at 12:43 pm
David Robertson conducted the St., Louis Symphony Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Michael Tammaro

David Robertson conducted the St., Louis Symphony Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Michael Tammaro

In some circles, David Robertson is a hoped-for replacement for Alan Gilbert when he leaves the New York Philharmonic at the end of the 2015 – 16 season. That cast a supplemental bit of shade over his desultory visit with the Phil back in January. But all bad memories were set aside by the exciting concert Friday night at Carnegie Hall, with Robertson leading his St. Louis Symphony in music of Debussy, Meredith Monk, and Tchaikovsky.

The orchestra and St. Louis Symphony Chorus opened the concert with Debussy’s Nocturnes. For the last decade or so, Robertson has, with a number of orchestras, led consistently outstanding performances of Debussy’s music. That has been valuable in its own right, and even more so considering how other conductors have been leading consistently routine performances of the same pieces.

What a strange affliction for one of the greatest composers. Perhaps because Debussy’s music is such an easy pleasure, there’s no incentive to dig under the surface. But there is every incentive—more than any other composer, Debussy preserved the relevance of tonality into the modern and contemporary eras, and also showed the way forward with new, organic forms. As Steve Reich has said, 20th century music was a battle between Schoenberg and Debussy, which Debussy won.

Robertson clearly hears and conveys the proportions that go together to make large-scale works like the Nocturnes so wonderful. Still moments, like the opening of “Nuages,” have a superb equipoise. Debussy’s colors have an expressive, not just decorative, purpose, and the orchestra laid out the whole palette, from dry to lush. The tinny muted trumpets in “Fêtes,” and their sense of distance, were remarkable, and Cally Banham’s English horn playing was superb throughout an outstanding performance.

Meredith Monk’s WEAVE is scored for a reduced ensemble, chorus, and two singers who are miked and incorporated into the orchestra Z(mezzo-soprano Katie Geissinger and baritone Theo Bleckmann). Monk is this season’s Richard and Barbara Debs Composer at Carnegie, and it is a shame that it has taken five years to hear this piece in New York for the first time. It is spectacularly beautiful.

Monk builds the music separately out of the voices and the instruments, then brings them together in gorgeous combinations, alternating major and minor tonality, and pentatonic scales with triadic harmony, a kind of Hegelian dialectic that culminates in a delicate, ritualistic conclusion.

The music starts with the solo voices, then is joined by the chorus, in a vocal gamelan. The orchestral music (orchestration by Allison Sniffin) is richly polyphonic, with as many as five or six lines going at once, with fine counterpoint. Monk works primarily with the voice, but she emphasizes intervals that are more common in instrumental music, so her ideas translate easily to the orchestra. The singers have syllables and sounds, but no words, and that emphasizes the instrumental connection.

Heard after Nocturnes, WEAVE demonstrates Debussy’s influence, even if Monk never intended to do so; the form uses sectional proportions to build power and place the conclusion at the perfect moment, and the music has an aesthetic commitment to beauty as an expressive and moving force. Hearing it is enriching.

For different reasons than with Debussy, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 is also subjected to rote, routine orchestral performances. Except with these musicians. The harsh, ominous edge of the opening fanfare announced that the first movement would be furiously intense. Every detail was laid out to support an obsessive sense of forward motion-—the syncopated string accompaniment to the main, faux-waltz tune, for example, was marked with a deliberately neurotic tension. There were hoots of appreciation after the first movement, towards which Robertson, with a wry smile of agreement, turned his head

Even interludes that change the character of the music were played less as a contrast than a distraction, an uneasy dream leading inevitably back to the overall sense of brittle striving, frustration, and angst.

The orchestra played with great skill and physical force, and Robertson expertly guided the music through the transitions from one idea and mood to another—utterly essential in Tchaikovsky and often disregarded. Everything flowed as organically as Debussy—underdone in just the right ways and overdone in just the right ways. The second movement was limpid but unsentimental, the third movement, with its famous pizzicato strings, swaggering and muscular.

The musicians used the final movement to bring their conception full-circle—all their ideas were big, whether they were about fury or tenderness.The final pages felt like a merry-go-round about to spin off its axis.

Meredith Monk performs 3 p.m. Sunday in Zankel Hall.

2 Responses to “Robertson, St. Louis Symphony inflame and illuminate Debussy, Monk and Tchaikovsky”

  1. Posted Mar 22, 2015 at 12:16 pm by Robert E. Wood

    If I may comment on the exquisite programming skills.
    Debussy and Monk as a pairing seemed clearly in mind. The Monk piece would have had a more difficult response as a first piece from a slushy snow driven audience – BUT – Debussy had first prepared us.
    The 2nd of 3 pieces -the Monk, a composer of my generation. Beautifully created for special vocal sounds for solo male alto and female soprano, and the 27 members of the Symphony Chorus which, via Robertson, had enabled the Debussy to prepare us to hear this strangely wonderful piece-which came across incredibly beautifully…partly because we were ready for an advanced musical palate.
    It was hugely successful- we loved it and gave her a standing ovation. The last piece was the Tchaikovsky 4th symphony – a brilliant bit of varied orchestration of an earlier period that tied up the whole evening with a beautiful big bow- and I came out euphoric about possibilities for this strangely evolving world. Next time I hear him I too expect to hoot once after a speicial moment of truth.

    Robert E Wood

  2. Posted Mar 25, 2015 at 10:27 am by Barbara Geissinger

    Thanks for putting into words what we FELT so strongly.

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