Artful Programming, Immaculately Played

04.06.10
David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Musical America

By Peter G. Davis

Program building is a sensitive subject these days, one that David Robertson, music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra [and Musical America's 2000 Conductor of the Year], clearly likes to ponder. Robertson and his musicians visited Carnegie Hall on Saturday evening (April 4) with what at first looked like something for everyone: two beloved symphonic classics, the New York premiere of an important new work, a thorny but intriguing piece from the recent past, and a seldom-heard score that puts new perspectives on a familiar composer. In addition to all that, one of opera's more genuinely charismatic personalities was on hand: Karita Mattila, giving her all and driving the audience wild.

Sensitive choices and careful organization saved the program from being merely a culinary grab bag. The two familiar works gave the evening a satisfying frame, beginning with the comforting warmth and seasonal message of the "Good Friday Music" from Wagner's "Parsifal," and concluding with the still invigoratingly chilled refreshment of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. Robertson's approach to both was typically modest, straightforward, and rich in purely musical vitamins, focusing on the chamber-like instrumental delicacies of the "Parsifal" music rather than its purely sensual allure, while elegantly articulating the rhetorical phrases of the Sibelius symphony without undermining the music's steady build up to that irresistibly expansive conclusion.

Mattila showed us another side of Sibelius by singing his tone poem for voice and orchestra, "Luonnotar," a daunting challenge few sopranos care to take up. The composer was inspired by the Finnish folk epic "Kalevala" on many occasions, and this ten-minute excerpt is taken from the opening canto that describes how the spirit maiden Luonnotar swam the ocean for seven centuries before playing her crucial role in the creation of the earth, sky, sunlight, moon, and stars. Completed in 1913, the music continues the dark, enigmatic, harmonically advanced style of the Fourth Symphony and hints at the sort of opera Sibelius might have written had he chose: sharply chiseled, vaulting vocal lines against a stark but brilliantly allusive orchestral commentary. With a form-fitting black dress and electrified blond hair, Mattila herself looked like a creature of myth as she summoned up all her mesmerizing declamatory powers and fearless vocal attack to create this self-contained miniature opera.

Returning to the stage appropriately dressed in a softer, free-flowing cream-colored gown, Mattila offered a perfect companion piece to the Sibelius: Kaija Saariaho's "Mirage" for soprano, cello, and orchestra. Written in 2007 for the soprano and the solo cellist of the evening, Anssi Karttunen, "Mirage" is a setting (in English) of a chant by the Mexican shaman and healer Maria Sabina (1894-1985) in which the female narrator describes an ecstatic journey from one world to another in both human and animal incarnations. The words themselves suggest the organic development of the music in which new sound textures emerge, gradually alter, and become mysteriously transformed as the two soloists weave a spectral dance around each other before sound and word unite. Like most of Saariaho's recent music, "Mirage" is a carefully plotted scenario of nuanced sonorities, and once again the overall effect is hypnotic.

For his solo turn of the evening, Karttunen continued the introspective tone with Bernd Alois Zimmermann's "Canto di Speranza" for Cello and Orchestra, a piece composed between 1952 and 1957. For those familiar with Zimmermann's work, particularly his massive opera "Die Soldaten," this 20-minute work will seem surprisingly gentle compared to the angry despair that haunts so much of his music; for some, this German composer was one of the more unrelenting and unapproachable 12-tone serialists on the scene in mid-20th-century. The "Canto" probably still won't please anyone allergic to this style, but heard today the score sounds positively uplifting as the solo cello traces a lyrical path through shimmering orchestral thickets that, in this sensitive performance at least, took us on a quietly unfolding, always stimulating musical adventure. In any case, here was another absorbing component of an artfully organized and immaculately played orchestral concert that won't be soon forgotten.