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Extraordinary beginning of SLSO tour pinpoints the power of performance

This article first appeared in the St. Loui Beacon, Sept. 4, 2012 - The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 2012 European Tour opened with an aesthetically volcanic beginning at the Royal Albert Hall on Kensington Road in London on Tuesday evening.

The main event, the sublime moment, the ne plus ultra, the acme of the evening was the orchestra’s extraordinary playing of the Beethoven "Violin Concerto in D Major" with the also absolutely extraordinary German violinist Christian Tetzlaff as the soloist.

To say he is a virtuoso is to understate things entirely. He is Merlin. And on a less magical and more sensuous plane, if ever a musician danced and made love to his instrument Tetzlaff is he. He is lover.

Not only that, he became a confederate of our orchestra. Not one to stand at a center stage’s remove, he joined the ensemble physically and artistically, and in a series of dialogues with various players, he created an affecting emotional bond that left the audience affected, and this audience member enraptured and weepy.

His dialogue with guest artist Benjamin Herman was particularly vivid and eloquent, and alone worth crossing the Atlantic to hear – and as we shall discuss in this reflection – to experience.

Tetzlaff, luminary that he is, could have left the platform of the Albert Hall with the reassuring roars and stomping of the Proms audience to the quiet of his dressing room.

But rather than leave it at that, he returned, quieted the enormous audience, and set about playing the last movement, the allegro, of J.S. Bach’s "Trio Sonata No. 5 in C" Major, BWV 529, a definition of complexity as well as an expression of virtuosity.

But beyond versatility, was the gesture generous? You bet it was. And as he played, his music carved facets in the sparkling jewels in this glorious evening in London.

An intermission followed that emotionally exhausting set of performances. Arnold Schoenberg’s “Five Orchestral Pieces” greeted the returning Proms audience and quite amazingly, as far as I could tell, most all of it came back, which is not the situation in so many of the world’s concert halls, where a post-interval Schoenbergian – or any so-called “modern” music selection -- can clear a hall quicker than a skunk.

But back they came, appreciatively – most all 6,000 of the sell-out audience of them, and they listened this music of the early 20th century’s most authentic master with reverence and respect.

Perhaps some of them knew and appreciated history and context – an awareness that the Promenade Concert’s founder-conductor, Sir Henry Wood, gave the Five Pieces its world premiere in 1912, proving himself to be not only a grand showman but a connoisseur and visionary as well.

George Gershwin’s bon-bonistical “An American in Paris” followed Schoenbergian melancholia in Vienna, and it provided a tonic of sorts, although because the Promenade Concert’s audience is so open to new experiences –that word again – perhaps no tonic other than an intermission glass or wine or Diet Coke was needed.

With the Gershwin, once again, the audience clapped itself into a frenzy and stomped its heart out for the orchestra from St. Louis – and in turn it sent all of them, and your reporter, off into a warm London evening with an encore of Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to ‘Candide,’” played at a quite unbelievably furious gallop, whistling in our collective ear.

A bust of the founder, Sir Henry Wood, observes all these goings on: on the orchestra platform and in the democratically round arena in front of it. There, for five pounds sterling, if you get in line early enough, you can stand literally for hours in the congregation of the hardiest of the melomanes, the Proms audience, practically unmoving, in rapt attention, in the standing room arena, the hole of the doughnut of the redoubtable Albert Hall.

There, in that great and rotund memorial edifice, at one time or another, you can hear the world’s greatest music. And, as is true in most all concert halls where “live” music is to be performed, one does not simply hear music but he also experiences it, internalizes it, in a deep, visceral and even metaphysical way, which is a consequence of the essential genius of serious works of art exhibited or magnificently performed.

In an interesting and – for me – deeply affecting way, my recent telephone conversation with Symphony music director David Robertson came to life with revelatory force not only in the Albert Hall but also in the midst of a visit to the Tate Modern museum in London on Sunday, the first day the orchestra and I were in London for the commencement of this tour.

Robertson had come down to London wreathed in laurels bestowed upon him from a triumphant performance at the Edinburgh Festival, where he conducted the final concert of the 2012 season. The music was Sir William Walton’s radiant, sprawling and transcendent “Belshazzar’s Feast.”

On Sunday, Robertson’s orchestra’s members and the administrative staff accompanying them booked into the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington after a smooth trip across the Atlantic, its beginnings in St. Louis unbothered by the waning winds of Isaac.

Concertmaster David Halen, who played so magnificently Tuesday night at the Proms, was both surprised and delighted to draw back his curtains and to find himself looking down directly on Kensington Palace and beyond the palace to Kensington Gardens as it makes its way toward the heart of London.

Place of memorials

As a poignant reflection, readers may recall 15 years ago Friday, Aug. 31, 1997, one of the most famous and tragic occupants of Kensington Palace died in an automobile crash in Paris. She was, of course, Diana, Princess of Wales, the people’s princess she was called, beloved of a nation.

As I made my way through Kensington Gardens on an early morning run, I found touching memorials to her around the palace and from it eastward into the park. An official walkway is named for her there, and sweetly sentimental homemade tributes to her fade, attached to a fence. Indeed, for her late Royal Highness and otherwise, London explodes with memory and memorials. Robertson spoke in our conversation not so much of these sculptures but of the quality of remembering.

The place where the conversation became so alive to me was itself a product of the intention to remember, in this case in a most imperial sense, the memory of Prince Albert, husband and consort of Queen Victoria, who died relatively young and affected 20th century history in so many ways. A literally golden Albert shines in the morning’s son and gazes across Kensington Road from the extraordinary sculptural memorial in which he is enthroned in deeply gilded glory, surrounded, literally by the four corners of the Earth. Rule Britannia indeed!

On Sunday, it appeared the entire world in all its marvelous diversity were out to take advantage of London’s equally diverse and marvelous pleasures and attractions.

A visit to the Tate Modern

I made my way to one of the most prominent of them, the Tate Modern museum, located in a dramatically rescued building in the Borough of Southwark, one of London’s oldest settlements.

The museum, along with the recreation of William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre next door to it, ignited a jubilant renaissance on the Thames’s southern shoreline. With apologies in advance for making something of a pun, the Tate Modern’s building’s original function, as the Bankside Power Station, was indeed to generate electrical power, and the Tate’s aesthetic sparks are comparable.

This building, regenerated to museum use by the firm of Herzog & de Meuron, is said to the most visited modern art museum in the world, and it certainly seemed to be on Sept. 2 when it burst out into the plaza created between the building and the river and up and down London’s watery spine, the river Thames.

Crowds were drawn to an exhibit of the work of Damien Hirst, whose attractions are mysterious and revolting to me, so I skipped that and headed for an exhibit on surrealism called “Poetry and Dream.” This show had the same mind-bending, evocative effects and psychoanalytic punch we St. Louisans found in the Pulitzer Foundation’s “Dreamscapes” in 2011. Dr. Freud is never far from us, trust me.

Surrealism, marvel that it is, is standard art historic and psychoanalytic fare. Downstairs from this show, another exhibit – or assembly or a happening or a performance or whatever – was in the process of creation and re-creation in the bowels of the museum.

These accommodating spaces are called the Tanks, which they are, huge tanks that stored the oil burned to run the giant turbines of the power station. There is a certain edgy mystery to them.

Visitors who make their way down to the Tanks were asked to contemplate and to act out and to participate in the act of performance, and to ponder the transitory nature of action, and to bathe in its natural condition, which is ephemerality. Furthermore, participants were almost by the nature of their involvement to ask seriously, and not dismissively, if what was going on had meaning.

It all seemed rather silly to me at first, with mimes working the crowd and with children making major racket while their intense parents presented frenzies of interaction with them, all the time cowtowing to the little angels, while crawling around on the floor.

Skepticism was pushed aside. It became obvious the event choreographed by the Tate Modern was not silly but actually quite fascinating, and furthermore for our purposes here, related to David Robertson’s thoughts about experience.

At the Tate, the (importantly) motivating intention was to explore the moment, and digging deeper, the to accept the ephemeral, an undercurrent art has always tried to figure out what to do with.

The Tate’s crew on Sunday busily and patiently and kindly worked away at generating enthusiasm for this investigation of permanence and impermanence, and how our minds try so valiantly both to preserve this memory and to repress that one and how we discover ultimately and paradoxically neither can be done with any genuine success whatsoever.

Thus, the rumpus in the Tanks ascended directly to the surrealism upstairs, expressions of a movement thoroughly concerned with dreams and with memory itself.

Recordings and reality

And here, at last, we return to our maestro, conductor-philosopher of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra David Robertson, patiently dealing with a reporter on the telephone in St. Louis and he, God-knows-where.

As I went through being at the Tate Modern, and as I took a long and solemn walk up the Thames. I was drawn back to the maestro and our conversation, parts of which already were reported on the Beacon’s site.

The discussion with David Robertson began with the practical question of the value (if not the necessity) of touring a big orchestra around Europe, which had to do with marketing and image building, but ended up on a different plane, one that had to do with the deep and exquisite meaning of experience, and its significance to us, and its value.

Robertson noted that since Thomas Edison first recorded sound, we participants in the evolution of culture and history have preserved the events and the memory of all sorts of things, orchestra performances among them, in recordings of one sort or another.

While certainly a blessing of the modern era, Robertson – philosopher here rather than music director – noted the recording is not “real” – it is a mechanical transcription of the real. But no matter how sharp its fidelity, it slithers off and evades reality.

What is “real” is not a recording, a CD, a disc, not a reproduction, Robertson said. What is real, or genuine, is experience.

He compared the hearing of music at first hand, and the watching of its creation, every time from scratch, to the viewing of a painting or a sculpture at first hand.

Although we may value the recording, and while we cherish the reproduction of a painting or a drawing or a sculpture, what matters -- what obtains and what is transfiguring in the cosmic sense -- is the direct experience of the moment in time, and – however faulty – the extraordinarily enriching but nonetheless ephemeral memory of it.

David Robertson and the members of his orchestra, along with the imported genius of Christian Tetzlaff -- created Experience last night at the Royal Albert Hall.

We who live in St. Louis know our Symphony’s deliveries of the immediate experience. Tuesday night, in an effulgent concert in the Albert Hall, European audiences got a generous taste of our region’s approach to the noble work of creation of experience, so affectingly, so magnificently as the band began a European progress once again.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.