David Robertson, Colin Currie and the SLSO issue a wake-up call

David Robertson, Colin Currie
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Sarah Bryan Miller

There’s no real secret about David Robertson’s true musical love: he is most engaged by works that pique his voluminous curiosity and challenge his formidable intellect. He made his name as an interpreter, discriminating selector and champion of new works, and he seems most fulfilled when he’s conducting, performing in or talking about them.

Normally, a subscription concert by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra demands a certain balance in the program. This weekend’s concerts at Powell Hall were not the normal mix: they were a preview of the program the orchestra is taking to Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, part of a festival called “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: Celebrating Chinese Culture.”

Robertson paired two contemporary percussion concertos by Chinese composers with two Western pieces influenced by musical orientalisms. The resulting program was heavy with banging, clanging and brass: it was consistently well-played and interesting on Friday night, if not especially balanced.

Ah, but there was the opening piece, a beautiful, sensitive reading of one of Igor Stravinsky’s best-wrought scores, “La Chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale).” The ensemble responded with superb playing. Particularly notable were the contributions of three principal players: flutist Mark Sparks, trumpeter Susan Slaughter, and concertmaster David Halen.

The next piece, Tan Dun’s “Water Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra (In Memory of Toru Takemitsu),” with the intense Colin Currie as soloist, required a long, involved setup.

Four enormous clear bowls filled with water (Evian, according to Eddie Silva’s blog on slso.org) were set on black pillars. Two were at the soloist’s position next to the podium, with two more at the far sides of the stage’s apron, as if a mass baptism (four fonts! no waiting!) were in the offing.

Tall clear acrylic screens protected other instrumentalists from total immersion, and mats were placed around. Some patrons in the front row donned ponchos.

That was a wise move, as Currie and SLSO percussionists Will James and John Kasica, at the side stations, splashed, slapped, scooped and otherwise troubled that (amplified) water.

Meanwhile, wind players made odd sounds with their mouthpieces, the strings made horsie noises and the other percussionists stayed busy. At the end, Currie put a giant sieve into the water and pulled it up, creating a small waterfall. The piece was visually as engaging as it was musically surprising, a tour de force for all concerned. It earned a tremendous ovation.

After much mopping up, Currie returned in a scarlet shirt for Bright Sheng’s “Colors of Crimson,” for marimba and orchestra. It started out gently, busily built to waves of angry dissonance, then turned dreamy at the end. There’s no mystery as to how Currie maintains his trim figure; he was constantly in motion, a meticulous and energetic performer.

The final work was Bela Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin,” in a brilliant performance by Robertson and the orchestra.

At that point, the cumulative effects of a very loud, intellectually challenging evening were almost overwhelming, but it was fascinating on many levels: David Robertson and his orchestra, at their best.