Robertson, SLSO triumph in complex new concerto

David Robertson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Sarah Bryan Miller

It was a big week for St. Louis Symphony Orchestra music director David Robertson: rehearsing and performing works including the United States première of a complex new violin concerto; a Pulitzer Foundation performance; a Science Center program on the workings of his brain; and, after Friday night's performance, a ceremony making him a Chevalier de Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and of Letters).

The honor was awarded by the French Republic's Ministry of Culture, via Marie-Anne Toledano, cultural attaché of the Consulate General of France in Chicago, for Robertson's extensive work in France, for the cultural links he has forged between the two countries, and for what Toledano called his "brilliant, eclectic and sometimes audacious programs."

That they are, and this weekend's program was a good example, with Richard Wagner's Overture to "The Flying Dutchman" followed by Philippe Manoury's "Synapse" and Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 1 in E minor.

It was also a critical night in the playoffs between the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers. (That morning the SLSO made a video of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," while assistant principal viola Christian Woehr used a rally towel on Friday night to cushion his instrument.) Robertson bounded onto the podium, swiveled to announce, "In the third inning, 3-nothing, Cards!" and swiveled back with the first crashing chords of the overture.

Amid few errors on the part of the winds, the orchestra delivered a big, dramatic reading, a little short on subtlety, but great fun.

Before the start of "Synapse" ("It's now 4-0"), Robertson asked soloist James Ehnes to give examples of his part from the concerto. Manoury, an intense figure with thin shoulder-length gray hair, sat on the edge of his seat in a Dress Circle box.

The drama of "Dutchman" led to a different sort of drama in "Synapse." Singularly appropriate following the program on how Robertson's brain reacts to music (see Sunday's A&E section for details), the concerto, constructed of 18 "blocks" of musical themes, is named for the junction where a nervous impulse passes between neurons in the brain.

The score is nearly as complicated as the real thing. The intricate solo part is all over the map, from the top of the range to the bottom and back up again (and again), and incredibly challenging throughout. Dreary passages give way to moments of lyrical beauty; steel drums provided a haunting effect.

"Synapse" is anxious music, provoking anxiety, and while it was fascinating, it's not easy in any sense. Ehnes was nothing short of phenomenal; he's an incredible technician. The orchestra and Robertson were no less amazing in their performances.

The audience, with a large percentage of students (including a big block of teens from Oklahoma, in town for a band competition), heard a fine performance of the Sibelius in the second half, played with exactitude and sweeping Nordic tempests. Principal clarinet Scott Andrews performed his opening solo superbly.

At the very end of the bows, Robertson made one last announcement: "Bottom of the eighth, 7-1, Cards."