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Reflection: Symphony shimmers on the banks of Lake Lucerne

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 7, 2012 - LUCERNE -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe beat Frank Lloyd Wright to the cliché on this architecture’s being frozen music business.

“I call architecture frozen music,” the great Goethe said, and while that notion is facile, and the sort of non-wisdom one loves to assail, it obtains on some occasions.

For example, it is on the mark in the case of architect Jean Nouvel’s building for KKL – the Kultur und Kongreszentrum Luzern, the Culture and Congress Center of Lucerne, Switzerland. This building, from the 1990s is a shimmering diamond by day that becomes a necklace of sapphires, rubies and emeralds at night and speaks an affecting language of simile and metaphor and rhyme.

Nouvel, who maintains a fierce independence as he operates as a member of the international top 10 -- is a synthetic artist, synthetic in the sense of bringing various ideas and traditions and materials together. With Nouvel, this aesthetic congress is seamless, where in lesser hands it would be simply a mess. Smooth and rough meet as happy material neighbors, as do transparent and opaque. Massive shapes, such as the ship’s bow in the lobby that is, in fact, the exterior manifestation of the rear of the orchestra hall, emerge out of the company of delicate understatements with compatible grace. Grand gestures – the great roof of the portico, for example – are part of an artistic conversation that understands grandeur along with refinement and simplicity.

I looked around for a long time at this building last night, inside and out, and watched it change in the waning light, and observed its marriages with piazza and sky and the waters of Lake Lucerne, on the banks of which it is situated. As it reflects the water on its façade, and as the water reflects it, transcendent beauty is not only seen but felt in your heart and maybe even in your artistic soul.

Inside the concert hall, this synthesis continues. As his basis, Nouvel selected one of the oldest, most venerable design schemes for the music hall, that shape being like a horseshoe. Although the sound seemed a bit muffled to me, especially in contrast to the clean edged acoustics in the Philharmonie in Berlin, there was no feeling cheated.

As it has all week, the sound of music on the 2012 Symphony Tour has been not only magnificent but also deeply affecting.

The reaction in Europe is something every one in the region must ponder. All too often St. Louis feels that if we made something or another, that product has to be only second rate, so-so, less rather than more. Such an attitude flies in the face of the abundance of resources we own in the St. Louis region, natural and man-made. Certainly this musical organization, for which the applause has been tumultuous night after night, is high on the list of the very, very greats. It is literally world class.

The program was changed almost completely for Lucerne’s “Festival im Sommer.” Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” was at the top of the bill. This is enigmatic music that owes at least part of its being to literary and philosophical Americans such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in its search for meaning, and its recognition of the futility of the search. The question is, after all, not answered.

But in arriving at that rather desperate condition, the music demonstrates the complexity of our lives, as Thomas May notes in his program notes for this concert. Chaos disrupts equilibrium; a distant trumpet sounds and drowns out what we regard as the rational.

Ives’s haunting, prototypical masterpiece was followed by Christian Tetzlaff’s athletic and sensuous reading of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. (Remember I said the program was “almost completely” changed. Who in his or her right musical mind would leave Tetzlaff off?)

And once again, the crowd went wild. This was not just conservative Swiss burgher wild, who might suggest a quiet tapping of the toe, and some polite hand clapping – this was Albert Hall in London wild, or close to it. The over-the-top exuberance that greeted Tetzlaff two nights ago at the Royal Albert Hall and again last night at the Philharmonie in Berlin was repeated on the shore of Lake Lucerne. Once again, the generosity of the audience was rewarded with a virtuoso solo encore. St. Louis Symphony music director David Robertson took a back row seat the better to leave center stage to the young violinist’s encore. (Just exactly what the encore was will be revealed when I can wheedle it out of someone.)

Jean Sibelius’s music, his “Symphony No. 1 in E Minor” occupied the second half of the Lucerne program. His work provides a bridge between the serious symphonic music of the late 19th century and the early moments of the modernist revolution that continues to this day.

Sibelius is far greater, far more universal than his popular and unashamedly nationalistic “Finlandia.” The orchestra performed this mighty Symphony No. 1 sympathetically, with a clear understanding of its ambivalences. Its presence on the tour program brings a measure of gravity that is appreciated and welcome. “An American in Paris,” which we heard for the past two nights, needed a rest in anticipation of tonight’s program.

Tonight’s concert is the finale of the Symphony’s Tour 2012. The conclusion of a grand week of touring, four lickety-split days as rigorous and demanding as they’ve been inspiring and rewarding.

For me, adieu is so often such a bittersweet word of parting. Better, in this case, to switch adieu with a bientot, translated into the vernacular: “See ya.”

Over the weekend, look for a wrap from the Faubourg Saint-Honore in the Beacon. We’ll let you know the reaction to a talented group of Americans in Paris playing “An American in Paris,” a suitable salutary farewell present from St. Louis and its symphony orchestra to our French brothers and sisters.

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.