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Music review: David Robertson brings the St. Louis Symphony to Disney

April 15, 2010 | 12:54 pm
St louis
There is something wrong with this picture. Wednesday night David Robertson conducted the St. Louis Symphony in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The audience was unusually small for a major orchestral concert in the hall, and one led by a hometown boy from Malibu, no less. The orchestra was unusually small, playing chamber orchestra works. And a Mozart/Stravinsky program was unusually tame for one of the most imaginative conductors in America who has worked a small miracle in St. Louis.

Marvelous – as well as strange – music making did ultimately result, but an opportunity was missed.

When Robertson became music director of the St. Louis Symphony in 2005, he bounded (he's not a walker) into a mess. The relationship between dispirited musicians and the orchestra’s then ungracious management was as bad as any I have ever witnessed.

The players latched on to the irrepressible, affable, unconventional, even wacky Robertson as a savior who might mend fences, attract audiences and rebuild a once first-rate orchestra. He has. Now when people speak about the handful of exciting American orchestras, St. Louis is one of them.

But for some reason, too little of what makes St. Louis special these days was not on display in Disney. Although the concert was presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the host did not invite these Midwesterners to exhibit exactly the kind of programming imagination L.A. has pioneered and now has an audience for.

Disney was the start of a California tour for which Saint Louis has two programs. The small-scale Mozart/Stravinsky one and another with John Adams' “Doctor Atomic" Symphony -- which Robertson commissioned and which has not been heard yet in L.A. -- along with Christopher Rouse’s rapturously over-the-top “Rapture,” a Prokofiev violin concerto and Sibelius’ inscrutable Seventh Symphony. That program is not too progressive for Palm Desert, Davis or San Francisco, apparently just us.

Moreover, anyone in Los Angeles looking for concertos by Mozart and Stravinsky, along with 1940s neoclassical Stravinsky and a late Mozart symphony could opt for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s mirror-image program this Saturday and Sunday. Nor did L.A. ask for another signature Robertson treat – the unscripted, stream-of-consciousness, usually hilarious and always insightful lectures he gives before every one of his concerts at home. It normally takes something close to physical restraint to keep Robertson quiet.

The Disney concert began with "Danses Concertantes,” a score for 24 players that is given little currency in the Stravinsky canon. Written in 1941 at what biographer Stephen Walsh describes as Stravinsky’s “sun-drenched Hollywood hillside” home, the score is an imaginary sun-drenched ballet that looks back to calm, classical art. Stravinsky finished up the concluding cheerful march as Pearl Harbor was being bombed and conducted the premiere at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre two months later.

To his credit, Robertson treated the score in ways that the objectivist Stravinsky would have objected to by making something of every detail. The playing wasn’t tidy, and the small ensemble didn’t project well in Disney. Still, Robertson’s tense and expressive performance made a listener think and wonder exactly what emotions Stravinsky -- who followed the European war as an exile far from his family (which included his son, who was collaborating with the Vichy government in France) – might have been covering up.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 2, another non-major score, followed. Gil Shaham, who has devoted most of this season to playing music written since 1900, was the soloist. He arrived on stage slightly disheveled and wearing a tie that was a good six inches too long. Shuffling as he played, he sometimes seemed lost in his own world, sometimes showing off to the audience.  He might have been Charlie Chaplin. His tone remains as sweet as ever, but his phrasing went in and out of focus inexplicably. Robertson (who is married to the violinist’s sister, pianist Orly Shaham) amazingly followed Shaham’s every twist.

After intermission, Shaham returned for Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. From the soloist: same tie, same muss, same odd ticks. From the conductor: same disregard for Stravinskyan detachment. The performance was a knockout.

What was different was, first of all, much more significant music, written in 1931. What was also different was that this time Shaham projected a larger sound and the orchestra was a little larger. The ensemble was terrific. Rhythms were dynamic and centered.

But what was really different was the fascinating, outrageous degree of character Shaham and Robertson gave every little Stravinskyan turn of phrase.

The concert ended with Mozart’s Symphony No. 36, known as the “Linz.” Robertson’s reading was buoyant and, in a funny way, Stravinskyan. It had the rhythmic propulsion only a conductor versed in the 20th century and beyond could muster. Yet the performance also had a warmth and richness of expression that brought to mind a hip, reborn Sir Thomas Beecham. The orchestra playing here, from first note to last, was special.

-- Mark Swed

Related: 

David Robertson heads home, bringing some St. Louis friends

Photo: Violinist Gil Shaham and conductor David Robertson with the St. Louis Symphony in Walt Disney Concert Hall Wednesday night. Credit: Bret Hartman / For The Times

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