Robertson: The Event And The Adventure
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Richard Wagner: Good Friday Music from Parsifal
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Canto di speranza
Jean Sibelius: Luonnotar, Opus 70 – Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Opus 82
Kaija Saariaho: Mirage for Soprano, Cello and Orchestra (New York premiere)
Karita Mattila (Soprano), Anssi Karttunen (Cello)
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson (Music Director and Conductor)
David Robertson (© Scott Ferguson)
The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra changed Friday’s surrealistic bijouterie to a North European cavern last night. But conductor David Robertson is no chameleon. Outside of his undoubted musical talent, he has the style to make every concert an event, a surprise, and ultimately an adventure. I have the feeling that he could take an evening of Telemann concertos and make it more exciting than other conductors do with Mahler and Mozart and Stravinsky.
His program last night was, theoretically, contemporary. That is, each four of the five works were 20th Century. Three pieces were Finnish, two German. But in each, he offered a that panache, that meticulousness, and—fortunately—two extraordinary Finnish artists. And while it is difficult to overshadow Mr. Robertson in anything, soprano Karita Mattila has the voice and, yes, the style to bring down any house.
She did it last year in the most sensual Salome the Metropolitan Opera has had in years. She did it twice last night. First, in the complex Finnish legend of the creation of the world in Luonnotar. The piece is nakedly Sibelius, with a vocal line that stretches the register but where the lines are passionate and longing. Most sopranos would be happy just to get through it alive, but the regal Ms. Mattila ate it up. Those top notes are not challenges in this work: they must be held, dramatically pulled and be as emotional as possible. Ms Mattila not only reached the notes, but every inch of her body was acting, straining, as she sung of waves sweeping away her house, or eggs crashing in the waves.
It was an experience. But no less an experience than the New York premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Mirage. While sung in English (not terribly well understood over the orchestra without the libretto), this was a Mayan woman keening and praying in the Aztec mushroom ceremony.
I was entranced by it, but recalled an incident many years ago when researching shamanism on the south Korean island of Cheju. The woman shamans would approach the sea and sing with that same longing throbbing tone, accompanied only by the sea. It was so beautiful it was frightening. And Mirage had the same effect.
But now the logic from this very amateur ethnomusicologist. That shamanistic music continues from Korea through the Ainu people of Hokkaido in north Japan. From there through the tribes of Siberia, and from there to the shamanistic people of Europe, the Lapps. The Lapps of North Finland. And possibly—just possibly—composer Saariaho was unconsciously influenced by this ageless music.
I didn’t forget cellist Anssi Kartunem, who created the background with orchestra during Mirage. He had his own solo in the serial Song of Hope, written by Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Mr. Zimmermann’s last contribution to the New York musical scene was the mammoth opera Die Soldaten at the New York Armory last year. That, at least, had the theatrical benefit of rape, murder, two huge orchestras (and conductors) and a percussion ensemble of seeming hundreds. As well as the suicide of the composer after he wrote it.
With groups like that, one doesn’t worry about dodecaphony. This piece for cello and orchestra, was subtle, dark (no violins allowed), and played apparently brilliantly by Mr. Karttunen, but I was not entranced.
Back to Mr. Robertson. Celebrating next week’s holiday, he started with Wagner’s Good Friday Music, shaping his orchestra with beautiful lines. But the real challenge was the Sibelius Fifth. The first two movements were noble. The last was the surprise. Mr. Robertson not only instilled all the momentum needed for the final brass anthems, but the strings of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra literally shimmered under his baton
That orchestra—older than our own NY Phil—has always enjoyed good players. Mr. Robertson, though, has dusted them with the gold of his own limitless talents. Carnegie Hall was not, alas, packed as it should have been. But I can guarantee that each member of the audience was already longing for his return.