By Chuck Lavazzi
ST. LOUIS – There was a sparse crowd for David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall on Jan. 26, presumably because the program was heavily weighted towards newer music. That’s a shame, because those who stayed away missed a highly personal take on Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto by Julian Rachlin, an impressive performance of John Adams’ first big, multi-movement orchestral work, Harmonielehre, and the U.S. premiere of the moving 2016 Elegie: Remembrance for Orchestra by Peter Ruzicka.
“Beautiful” is a word I find myself applying all too rarely to much of what has been written for the concert hall in the last half-century or so, but beautiful is exactly what Ruzicka’s Elegie is. Inspired by the “Porazzi theme” – an enigmatic 13-bar fragment that Richard Wagner is said to have written at the house he was renting on the Piazza dei Porazzi in Palermo where he was working on Parsifal – the Elegie is something of a reflection on Wagner’s music, his life, and the influence of his work.
That is, at least, what I take from the composer’s own description of his work, as quoted in René Spencer Saller’s program notes:
“The last 13 bars that Richard Wagner wrote and played for his friends at the Palazzo Vendramin on the evening before his death are a declaration of love for (his wife) Cosima in the form of a mysterious question. The Elegie appears like a musical self-observation referring, as from afar, to Tristan and the circumstances surrounding its composition. Wagner’s piano sketch has occupied me for a long time. Its openness and indefiniteness caused me to pursue the thought, and to undergo a highly personal musical rapprochement and distancing. For this, I selected the sonic potential of a string orchestra, underlain by the impulses and `shadowy sounds’ of three flutes and percussion. Wagner’s question ultimately remains. And it still seems unanswerable, even today.”
In realizing that “sonic potential,” Ruzicka has assigned each string player a separate melodic line. That sounds like a gimmick and rather looks like one since the resulting score is around three feet tall and requires an extra-large podium, but the result is breathtaking. The music begins so softly that it’s almost inaudible and then, for the next nine minutes, alternates between sharply dissonant passages and bits of Wagner’s original melody in a more conventional harmonic form — the “rapprochement and distancing” to which the composer refers. The music rises to a climax and then slowly subsides to a quiet, resigned conclusion, like the final breath of life.
It’s music that achieves a kind of aural simplicity via underlying complexity, beautifully realized by the SLSO strings. It was magical, and I’d be happy to hear it again – which is something I don’t find myself thinking very often about recent music. It’s certainly something I was not fully prepared for after listening to some of Ruzicka’s other work, which seems to be more clearly linked to the disintegration of tonality that was the ultimate product of Wagner’s late work and the fabled opening chord from Tristan und Isolde to which Ruzicka referred.
His 1972 Feed Back, for example, is like an explosion in a metal foundry combined with sound effects that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Carl Stalling cartoon score. But his 1990 Metamorphoses for Large Orchestra has a kind of eerie stillness and a suspension of the usual concept of time that I associate with the work of Bruckner and which I heard again in the Elegie. Clearly, Ruzicka is a very distinctive voice.
He also has a distinctive biography. Born in 1948 in Düsseldorf and currently professor of music at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg, his resume has the usual list of awards and notable job postings you see with any composer whose work has become prominent enough to capture the attention of major orchestras. What’s less typical is that his education included studies in theater and law. The latter led to a law doctorate in 1977. As Chauncey used to remark to Edgar on The Bullwinkle Show, that’s something you don’t see every day.
Up next was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a piece so well known that performances of it can become, as Robertson wryly observed in his pre-concert talk, a kind of “musical wallpaper.” It’s a fair point; it has been played so many times by so many great musicians that it can be difficult for any one performer to make us listen to it with fresh ears.
And yet that’s exactly what soloist Julian Rachlin did. Decked out in a double-breasted tux, black tie, and red pocket square, Rachlin cut a dashingly retro Fritz Kreisler-esque figure on the stage, and played with an idiosyncratic style that created the illusion of improvising the music on the spot rather than playing a work written over 160 years ago. This was especially apparent in the first-movement cadenza, with its wide dynamic range and marked dramatic contrasts. Closely attuned to Robertson and the band, Rachlin delivered a subtly shaded reading that made this venerable warhorse sound almost new, and did it with impeccable virtuosity.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Adams’ Harmonielehre. The title refers to the music theory book of the same name by Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of serialism and the teacher of Adams’ teacher Leon Kirchner. Since Adams explicitly rejected serialism, the title can be seen as a kind of ironic declaration of independence from the 12-tone row. The work was also an attempt to find some kind of consensus between the simplicity of minimalism and the harmonic richness that Wagner (also Ruzicka’s source of inspiration) created in his later works.
This is big, almost cinematic music that has its roots in the romantic world of dreams and Jungian psychology. The dramatic opening and closing movements, as a result, are musical realizations of dreams that Adams had when composing the work, while the middle movement, titled “The Anfortas Wound,” is explicitly Jungian. In composing it, Adams notes that he “was deeply affected by Jung’s discussion of the character of Anfortas, the king whose wounds could never be healed. As a critical archetype, Anfortas symbolized a condition of sickness of the soul that curses it with a feeling of impotence and depression.”
Robertson and the SLSO have performed and recorded Harmonielehre (for the orchestra’s Arch Media label) in the past, so the high quality of this performance was no surprise. That second movement – with its meandering theme that rises, falls, and never goes anywhere – was the epitome of despair. And the final moments of the last movement, with principal horn Thomas Jöstlein and the rest of his section playing pavillons en l’air (bells up, to get a more potent sound), were just plain thrilling.
There’s no doubt that newer music can be a tough sell for many symphony orchestras, but David Robertson hasn’t let that discourage him from bringing quite a lot of more recent music to St. Louis Symphony Orchestra patrons and providing valuable insights about it in his pre-concert talks. He will be very much missed when he retires at the end of the current season.
Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic at 88.1 KDHX in St. Louis, where this review originally appeared, as well as a performing arts blogger for OnSTL.com. He’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and the St. Louis Theater Circle as well as an actor and cabaret performer. You can find his KDHX reviews here, connect with him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter @clavazzi, and view his YouTube performance video channel.