Robertson, Gerstein and the SLSO prove they've got rhythm

David Robertson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Sarah Bryan Miller 

This weekend’s concerts by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are devoted to that most American of musical forms: jazz. Built on a foundation of African rhythms, with some Jewish klezmer and other ingredients, it’s outsider music that, at its best, anyone can embrace.

Most of the program, of four pieces by three composers (Darius Milhaud, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein), came straight from the post-World War I Jazz Age, with one from 1944. On Friday morning, music director David Robertson and the SLSO gave a set of dynamic performances, with a big assist from pianist Kirill Gerstein. They’ve got rhythm.

The concert opened with Milhaud’s 1923 “La création du monde.” Supposedly based on an African creation story, it’s a quick 16-minute trip through the process, from surprisingly melodic chaos through a jazzy building process to conclude with the first kiss of the first man and woman.

The small band (just four strings; heavy on the winds) caught the bluesy essence of the piece, with some especially fine licks from associate principal clarinet Diana Haskell and principal oboe Jelena Dirks. The alto saxophone line, however, is the essential center of it all; Nathan Nabb was terrific.

The orchestra was larger for the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” but not by much. It’s leaner and more lithe than the familiar version for full orchestra, and Robertson used that flexibility to enhance the energy.

The Russian-born Gerstein seemingly can play anything, from Schoenberg to Tchaikovsky to new works; he had no trouble bringing this to vibrant life, in a performance that was perfectly meshed with Robertson and the orchestra. Principal clarinet Scott Andrews played the famous opening with panache.

The stage was full for the second half, starting with Bernstein’s Three Dance Variations from “Fancy Free.” Robertson jumped right into the big, brassy opening, as the instruments tossed phrases around like the Cardinals in top form; trumpet Michael Walk was a standout. The three distinct dance styles flowed seamlessly, in a fine performance.

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