Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chopin Again

Last month, after my post on Chopin, I saw that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra had scheduled a concert that included the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 which, those of you who read the comments might recall, is my sister's favorite work by Chopin.  So I immediately e-mailed her to see if she was free and if she wanted to go with me.  She was and she did.

The concert was tonight at Powell Symphony Hall and the program was called Warm Music for Cold Nights (which was appropriate as it was quite cold out).  The concert opened with Samuel Barber's Essay No. 1 and was followed by the Chopin work.  After intermission we heard Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3.   I had never heard any of these works performed live before (not even the Chopin, that I could recall) and I was unfamiliar with the  Tchaikovsky .  I had no idea why this program was considered "Warm Music", so I checked the SLSO's web site before going to the concert. 

Barber's Essay lights a bright American candle. Chopin's piano concertos are all of fire, a dramatic combustion between orchestra and soloist, a battle as riveting as a volatile marriage. Tchaikovsky's suites are just as incandescent.  Being Russian he knows the darkest nights require heat and light.  He brings them. 

I have to say, I thought that was a little overwrought.  But I decided to withhold judgment until after the concert.

The soloist for the Chopin was French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, of whom I had never heard.  He struck both of us as a man with a sense of humor.  The way he held his body and moved his head during the third movement, we could almost see a twinkle in his eye up in the balcony where we were seated.  

Lortie was in command of this performance, playing with exquisite technical proficiency but with an interpretation that was somewhat mellow.  To say that he made it look effortless probably doesn't convey the depth of his calm at the piano.  And yet he was fully engaged.  Personally I prefer a slightly more emotional interpretation - more longing.  But that didn't detract at all from my experience.

Chopin represents early romanticism, Tchaikovsky represents the height of romanticism.  I had never heard Suite No. 3 (in fact this was the first time in its more than 100 year history that SLSO was playing the entire Suite).  I can't say it would count as one of my favorite works by Tchaikovsky.  The Suite has four movements: an elegie, a waltz, a scherzo and then a final movement that is a theme and variations.   The final movement was worth the rest of the piece and more.  The theme itself wasn't particularly memorable, in my opinion, but the variations were interesting and in some cases humorous.  I particularly liked the somewhat schmaltzy violin solo which made me think that Hollywood composers must have had it in mind when they composed "russian" background music.

The Barber piece was also somewhat Hollywood. I often think his works sound like the soundtracks to a Hollywood film of the 1950's but that's not his fault, it is Hollywood's).  This is a somber piece with lighter moments in the middle and then more tension toward the end.  What I liked about it was that it was not only the strings, but the horn section and reed sections, that emoted.  I'm generally a fan of Barber and I enjoyed this.

In fact, I enjoyed the whole program and thought it fit together very well.

Rather than link to any Chopin (a bait and switch, I know) I'm going to link to the Barber.  This version was performed recently by the Conway Symphony Orchestra after the shootings at the University of Central Orchestra.