The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra featuring Sarah Chang, violin

 

Hearing a true world-class orchestra is a rare event in Kansas City. The steady improvement of our local symphony is raising hopes that we will one day have an artistically viable classical music scene, but the recent performance by the stunning forces of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra served notice of just how far we have to go.

Performing a program consisting primarily of relatively obscure pieces, the SLSO still managed to draw a large and lively crowd to the art deco splendor of the Music Hall. Here, as part of the William Jewell Fine Arts Series, phenomenal violinist Sarah Chang accompanied the orchestra. Conductor Leonard Slatkin was also on hand, marshaling his musical forces with a tight hold on rhythm and a flair for expressive flourishes.

The Violin Concerto in D minor by Jean Sibelius provided the definite highlight of the evening. This piece served as a showcase for Chang’s virtuosity, and the young violinist did not disappoint. Alternately fiery, dreamy, and whimsical, her playing was superior in its clarity and brilliance of tone.

The first movement featured the solo violin as a ray of sunlight, shining through the misty Finnish backdrop of the orchestral accompaniment. Sibelius’ score provides little melody of interest, focusing instead on showing off the violinist’s skills with one difficult cadenza after another. The combination of delicate runs and impressive climaxes was so impressive that the audience was unable to restrain its applause when the movement came to its dramatic close.

The second movement highlighted Sibelius’ syrupy gift for melody. The somewhat schmaltzy material was golden in Chang’s hands, highlighting the more lyrical side of her abilities. The orchestra’s accompaniment was lilting and peaceful. The music picked up again in the final movement, and if it didn’t reach the stunning heights of Chang’s earlier solos, it was still an inspiring and exciting showcase of this young genius’ abilities.

The evening started with a stunning rendition of John Adams’ “Slominsky’s Earbox,” a surrealistic jaunt through the terrain of minimalism. Whereas the Sibelius piece was moody and romantic, this was a harsh and aggressive demonstration of the rhythmic intensity of the SLSO’s forces. Startling layers of percussion slowly overwhelmed Adams’ characteristic blurts of melody. The ensemble used staples of the elementary school music room, such as marimbas, castanets, wood blocks, and triangles, to build the music up to a transcendentally loopy wall of sound. Always a champion of modernism, Slatkin cavorted and bounced along with the subtle shifts in rhythm, keeping a firm grip on his forces throughout this stunning performance.

The second half of the performance featured the unsettling and harrowing “Symphony No. 4” of Ralph Vaughan-Williams. The orchestra attacked the symphony with gusto, showing particular aplomb in the final movement’s powerful fugue. While well-performed, however, this work did not live up to the lofty heights reached in the program’s first half. In a nice bit of musical explication, Slatkin played Vaughan-Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” before the symphony, hoping to contrast this piece’s pastoral splendor with the whirling moodiness of the symphony. This example of the orchestra’s ability to rapidly shift between sunny grace and bombastic gloom was yet another example of its artistic merit, providing a fine end to an excellent performance.

Categories: Music