Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Night Out with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

By Jen Eide

Let's face it, I've been feeling kind of stale lately. In an effort to foster personal growth, I've decided to take more risks. I quit a job with health insurance to go study Chinese. I took skydiving lessons. I did, um, I did a lot of crazy stuff that we won't discuss here.

So when the invitation was extended to a group of local music bloggers to be a guest of the St. Louis Symphony I jumped at the chance. No, it wasn't as risky as skydiving--in fact, some would argue that it wasn't risky at all. Some may think it was, well, safe. But here's the thing. I own maybe five classical recordings by the following composers: John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Erik Satie. Cage, Reich and Glass are all modern composers, experimental, minimalist, conceptual, and the Satie was purchased for one beautifully impressionistic piece (Gymnopédie No. 1) that was all over movie soundtracks in the late 1980's. What would I possibly have to say about classical music? While I can write credibly on punk and indie rock, and I am something of an authority on jazz, this classical business is making me feel out of my element...a little off-kilter...a little nervous. My first thought was, ok, this is risky, this will be a stretch, this will be a great opportunity for growth. My second thought was what the hell am I going to wear?

Several wardrobe changes later and still not feeling dressed right, I'm at Powell Hall looking at the program and feeling a bit more comfortable. It turns out this evening's performance is part of the SLSO Guitar Fest and they will be premiering Mark-Anthony Turnage's A Prayer Out of Stillness featuring bassist John Patitucci. I remember Patitucci from the late 1980's as the wunderkind bassist with Chick Corea's Elektric Band. Those recordings didn't hold my interest at the time--they sounded kind of sterile to my ear, but that may have been due to the transition from analog recording to pure digital. I do remember thinking now here's a guy with a lot of technique but no heart...I wonder if he'll grow into something substantive or not. Well, it seems that he has grown. Patitucci still demonstrates prodigious chops, but there was something that has matured in his playing--and while I don't think I'll ever enjoy his work as much as I do some of his contemporaries, like say, Charnett Moffett--it does make me curious about his latest jazz recordings. A Prayer Out of Stillness didn't knock me out cold, but I enjoyed the part of the composition where Patitucci, on electric bass, was accompanied by an acoustic bassist while the orchestra sat out. I'm pretty sure Patitucci was given reign to improvise during this section--he sure was given some room to swing, which was something both delightful and unexpected.

The next piece was also a premiere, a composition by Steven Mackey entitled Beautiful Passing, featuring violinist Leila Josefowicz. Beautiful Passing appealed to me on a number of levels, as it has a number of things in common with what I listen for in jazz and punk music: dissonance, energy and freedom of expression. And unlike the stiff looking machinations of the accompanying orchestra, Josefowicz was so embodied--so dramatic in both her playing and her physical posturing. I felt like I was watching John Coltrane during a particularly intense solo--lifting his horn towards the heavens and bowing back down. It did feel downright unnatural for me to be witnessing this in a space where where I didn't feel comfortable expressing myself as I listened and watched. I was at the Symphony after all, not some club--this was no place to hoot, holler or bounce around in your seat. Still, after one long, dramatic solo passage I could not suppress a (somewhat quiet) vocalization of niiiiice.

The program closed with Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which is a piece I am familiar with--thank you Walt Disney--and was really looking forward to hearing again. I came away convinced that I really need to own a copy of this. Again, there was a lot for me to like about this work--lots of dissonance, energy and playing around with structure and form. I love the fact that people thought this was so radical in 1913 that they rioted in the concert hall. It's the same kind of challenge to your ears that Ornette Coleman provides in the jazz realm, and while Ornette's 1959 New York debut caused a ruckus among musicians and club-goers alike, it didn't quite cause a riot (though there is that legendary tale of Ornette being chased out of a bar in Texas, getting beat up and having his saxophone thrown off a bridge). Charlie Parker was quite familiar with Stravinsky's compositions (as you can read in this fascinating blog post here) and if there is a direct lineage from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman, there is certainly a line from Stravinsky to Parker to Coleman, which makes you wonder if Coleman's free jazz revolution would have been possible without certain innovations in classical music.

It occurs to me that classical and jazz music share some of the same challenges as their audiences diminish in favor of contemporary forms like rock, soul and hip-hop. I alluded to this in last week's post on jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, a rare artist who is simultaneously celebrating the jazz tradition while creating stylistic innovations which push the genre into the future. It seems to me that violinist Leila Josefowicz may be a kindred spirit in the classical world, teasing unconventional sounds from her instrument and taking on challenging modern compositions. The task that faces symphonies all over the world which will determine if classical music will survive as a living, breathing medium is in the programing of each concert--striking a balance between the traditional and familiar and the new and exciting.

After the program, I retired to the William Shakespeare Gastropub to hang out with our gracious host Eddie Silva, his SLSO colleague Dale Fisher and a few fellow bloggers. Good times, good conversation. To read about the experiences that the other bloggers had that evening, check out Eddie's SLSO blog, Michael from Peripatetic Cirumambulant, Chris from Highway 61 and Patrick from Patrick's Music Reviews.

I like a challenge. This invitation definitely opened my ears to a type of music that I don't ordinarily seek out. I've already decided that I'm heading back down to Powell Hall in December to see the Symphony perform Harold Arlen's score during a screening of the recently restored version of the Wizard of Oz. What a movie night. You should go, really! And hopefully I'll be better dressed this time.


Patrick said...

Your review intimidates mine, but regardless, it was a pleasure to meet you too! That was a great evening. I hope there are more events like that to come.

jean said...

I really enjoyed reading this; I might have to give the symphony a try sometime soon.

I liked it even better pre-edit though, when you talked about all the wild, crazy, risky adventures you can't talk about here.

Patrick said...

Hahah, thanks, maybe you're right. I'm hindered here in that I only know as much about jazz and classical as I was trained on over the years while playing instruments. I guess we're both just working with what we know, which is probably how most people approach new music anyway. So it all works out.