Concert review: Adams and Mahler program plays to the St. Louis Symphony's strengths Friday and Saturday, January 22 and 23.

01.26.16
David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
KDHX

By Chuck Lavazzi

David Robertson and The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are getting their act together and taking it on the road to sunny California this week and next, with appearances in Aliso Viejo, Palm Desert, Berkeley, and Los Angeles, January 27 through February 2. If what I saw in Powell Hall Saturday night is any indication, they're going to take the West Coast by storm.

Saturday's double bill of the John Adams "Saxophone Concerto" and Mahler's "Symphony No. 5" is one of two programs they'll be performing (the other is last weekend's multimedia version of Messiaen's "Des canyons aux étoiles...") and it couldn't be a better showpiece for both the orchestra and Mr. Robertson. That's because although the two works have little in common musically, they both present significant technical and artistic challenges.

Originally performed and recorded (for Nonesuch) by the SLSO in 2013, the concerto is not the most approachable of Adams's works, building its two movements from brief motifs that are so closely related it can be hard to tell them apart. It's edgy, aggressive music that requires a high degree of precision from both the orchestra and soloist. It also demands real endurance from the latter, since the solo sax is rarely silent for the concerto's thirty-minute length. Up on the podium, meanwhile, the concerto demands a conductor who can keep this musical express train from going off the rails and coming across as more a barrage of notes than actual music.

As they demonstrated both in 2013 and again Saturday night, Mr. Robertson and his forces can navigate this tricky score with ease. The jazz-inflected call and response sections, in particular, had the kind of snappy precision that called to mind the big band work of Stan Kenton. Mr. Robertson is obviously very comfortable with the concerto and made the compelling case for a work which, even upon second hearing, still sounds like a rather tough nut to crack.

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Then there's the fact that Mahler, like John Adams, often drew inspiration from popular music styles. In Mahler's symphonies, it's not unusual to hear a saccharine ländler, an "oom-pah" march, or a clarinet wailing in the style that would later be labeled "klezmer"-sometimes rubbing shoulders with passages of real profundity. Some of Mahler's contemporaries sneered at what they regarded as vulgarity, but ultimately the composer's wide-ranging musical interests are really just a manifestation of his idea that, as he once told Sibelius, a symphony "must be like the world. It must embrace everything."

All of this means that conducting Mahler, to my mind, requires not only a deep understanding of the capabilities of the orchestra's musicians but also a profound grasp of musical structure, along with musical sympathies that extend beyond those of the traditional concert hall.

Over the years, Mr. Robertson has demonstrated that he has those skills and knows how to apply them. His classical credentials are unimpeachable, of course, but he has shown that he's equally comfortable with film music and non-classical styles in general. Yes, I have not always been 100% persuaded by his Mahler symphonies in the past, but that's mostly a reflection of my personal taste. If I set that aside, I am obliged to acknowledge that his interpretations have always been of a very high order and sometimes (as was the case Saturday) superb.

From the first solo trumpet notes of the opening Trauermarsch (played so authoritatively by Karin Bliznik) to the wildly exuberant Rondo finale, this was a Mahler 5th that can stand with the best of them. I'd compare it favorably with Bernstein's 1964 New York Philharmonic recording, and that's saying something. At every point, Mahler's structure was clear, tempi were perfectly chosen, and all the elements of the work were in perfect balance.

Read the full review here.