Good chemistry between a conductor and orchestra is a difficult thing to predict or explain, but as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart might say, I know it when I see it. And I know I saw — and heard — it this past Monday night when David Robertson brought the St. Louis Symphony into Segerstrom Concert Hall for a very generous evening of interesting works, care of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.
How else does one explain the powerful yet easy-going and relaxed music making I experienced? This is the way all concerts should be. Details were attended to without any fussiness. Technical hurdles were overcome with more than sufficient aplomb, and Mr. Robertson had his orchestra turning on a dime with no problems. Smiles were everywhere. There was much to love, and there was much rejoicing to be had by all.
You should know that a program where each half starts with a Strauss tone poem is typically not something I jump up and down about, but when they are played as emphatically as they were this night, you don’t complain — you just sit back and revel in the sound. Mr. Robertson led a swashbuckling account of Don Juan that soared from the get-go and never looked back. His version of Till Eulenspiegel was sprightly, with even the courtroom scene and funeral march feeling more sarcastic than ominous, but it all worked well nonetheless.
Christopher Rouse’s five-movement Flute Concerto occupied the central place in the evening. As has been mentioned by others more prominent than me, the 1993 composition was the first work by a living composer performed by a professional orchestra behind the Orange Curtain this season, and The OC was lucky to get a richly crafted yet easily digestible work such as this to fill the bill. It begins and ends quite forthrightly: the solo flute playing a spacious melody over hushed strings. In between are episodes of sturm und drang, dance music, and elegy. There is relatively little back and forth between soloist and orchestra, with the latter mostly occupying a supporting role. It is direct music, usually tonal, even melodic, though enough moments of dissonance crop up to remind the casual listener that it is (gasp) contemporary music.
The SLSO’s Principal Flute, Mark Sparks, was the excellent soloist. He shaped phrases with grace and elan, and he played with a broad range of timbres that suited the contrasting moments the score presents. Both Los Angeles and Orange County have heard more than their share of first chair flutists in the past few years (click HERE and HERE if you know not about which I speak); Mr. Sparks can easily be ranked with the best of them. He was rewarded with the loudest ovations of the entire evening from the audience (and his orchestral colleagues too).
Closing the concert was Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony. It isn’t exactly typical faire for a concert season, let alone for touring, though So Cal has had its share of recent local performances, Zubin Mehta having conducted it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic just this past December. With its organ-like sororities, blocks of instrumental color, and terraced dynamics, it seems half-way between Bruckner and Sibelius, but is ultimately distinct in character and emotion. The SLSO gave it a lush but translucent treatment that ended glowingly.
Throughout the entire evening, Mr. Robertson conducted with energy and attentiveness without ever seeming to micromanage things. He gave his players room to move, and they responded well to it, their bright but balanced sound proving to be a good fit for Segerstrom’s warm and reverberant acoustics. The strings in particular had a nice butterscotch richness to their tone. If some human imperfection cropped up in the playing for one instance or another, it was easy enough to overlook. Music making like this is to be cherished. Let’s hope these excellent Midwestern musicians find their way to the West Coast again very soon.
Random other thoughts:
- The SLSO played on a flat stage, eschewing the risers that most orchestras use at Segerstrom.
- No encore was played. A little disappointing, especially given the quality of the playing, but given the fairly large amount of music they brought along, you couldn’t really blame them.
- Mr. Sparks was taken to task for his choice of wardrobe by one of the other major publications in So Cal. While it wouldn’t have been an outfit I would have picked out, I thought it was appropriate for the stage and especially for the sometimes New Age quality of the score he played.
- After the rest of the orchestra goes back to Missouri after their tour of California, Mr. Robertson returns very soon. The Santa Monica native will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic April 5-7 in a program that includes Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes,” the West Coast premiere of Steven Mackey’s piano concerto, Stumble to Grace, with Orli Shaham (aka Mrs. Robertson) as soloist, and the ever-popular Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s score.
Philharmonic Society of Orange County: March 18, 2013; Segerstrom Concert Hall (Costa Mesa, CA)
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson, Music Director and conductor
Mark Sparks, flute
Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20
Rouse: Flute Concerto
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28
Hindemith: Symphony, Mathis der Maler
Photo credit: Drew A. Kelley for the Orange County Register