St. Louis Symphony breaks away from the obvious with new-music program

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Chicago Sun-Times

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra music director David Robertson wants to change what is customary.

The conductor of this proud 129-year-old orchestra prefers his concerts tightly connected, even if it means presenting a new-music program without the neutralizer of a tired war horse. How many major or mid-major orchestras ever do that? On Sunday afternoon at Harris Theater, he gathered contemporary composers who have written music "outside the realm of the normal," as he said after intermission.

And who better to bring along than violinist Leila Josefowicz? With an uncompromising devotion to contemporary music -- as evidenced by a recent half-million-dollar MacArthur grant -- she raucously channeled Steven Mackey's brand new super-rhythmic violin concerto "Beautiful Passing." The orchestra's bustling, citylike havoc rose busily around her jerky solos, as if she were playing her own game of tug-of-war. Written for Mackey's dying mother, it also has real moments of reflective beauty that vividly recall Vaughan Williams' fluttery "Lark Ascending." The verve of this young violinist is unrivaled.

CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Mark Anthony-Turnage continues to refine his ever-growing jazz influences with the funky four-part "A Prayer Out of Stillness" (2007), written for orchestra, double bass and electric bass guitar. Turnage wrote the work for bass ace John Patitucci, who improvised cunningly while displaying a virtuoso's swagger. The third movement, with its wicked nightclub groove, left maestro Robertson agape with awe. Yet these fun, disparate movements didn't form much of an identity as a single coherent unit.

Guitar orchestrator and rocker Glenn Branca unveiled the first part of his Symphony No. 14, "The Harmonic Series, 2,000,000,000 Light Years from Home," a work specifically commissioned by Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony. This begins with a long crescendo intensified by chiming bells and rumbling drums but, for all its supercharged dynamism, went on to do little else.

Then there's Frank Zappa, rock music's most famous pariah, who wrote an epileptic little jingle heroically titled "G-Spot for Tornado," arranged here for orchestra by Ali N. Askin. Yet the original cut, recorded on an outdated synthesizer from the 1986 album "Jazz From Hell," lost some of its charming strangeness on the orchestral transfer.

If all these composers shared a single common idol, it very well may be the rebellious French emigre Edgard Varese. His "Arcana" (1927), with its grumpy brass and molten strings, was potently realized by this superb visiting orchestra.