The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra came to Foellinger Great Hall on Nov. 17 with its new conductor, Stéphane Denève, and played a highly stimulating concert. The program had much going for it, a challenging new work by Aaron Jay Kernis, a brilliant performance by Gil Shaham in Bela Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and an exciting reading of Brahms’ magisterial Symphony No. 4.
Kernis’ new work, premiered in St. Louis just two nights before, is called “Venit Illuminatio (Toward the Illumination of Colored Light).” The Latin title can mean “Enlightenment Comes.” In an extended note, the composer explains, “With this work I was trying to leave dark thoughts and conflicted emotions behind and find a transformative experience of ecstasy and light. Not just white light of inspiration, but the colored light of change and imagination.”
I found Kernis’ work full of brilliant strokes of orchestral color, and his “dark thoughts” are given wild expression in a vivid tangle of instrumental voices, leading up to a highly effective dramatic stroke. The music just stopped, then continued as if chastened by its excesses. I expected a more emotive ending to this search for “light,” in the form of a more traditional harmonic resolution, but the piece, to my ears, just ends in thin air. The audience responded with warm applause.
Gil Shaham was born in Champaign-Urbana in 1971, and his family moved to Israel two years later. His early musical training was in Israel; later, he studied at Juilliard. When he subbed for an ailing Itzhak Perlman in 1989, at age 18, a critic headlined “A Star is Born, Maybe.” Audiences all over the world have long ago erased the “Maybe.”
Bartok’s 1937 “Second Violin Concerto” was his last major work before leaving Hungary, and his first work in his final “user friendly” phase of composition, leading up to the triumph of his 1945 “Concerto for Orchestra.” Bartok wanted to write a work in the form of a series of variations for his friend, Zoltan Szekely, but Szekely wanted a more traditional three-movement concert, and that is what he got, complete with a first-movement cadenza.
The first movement has wild patches, with hair-trigger changes of mood, and much Hungarian flavor. Shaham played with impassioned brilliance, at times stamping his feet, and giving signs of impending levitation. The orchestra, urged on with enthusiasm by conductor Denève, gave Shaham strong support. At the dazzling end of this movement, the silence that followed, without applause, was eerie.
Bartok satisfied his desire for variations with six in the middle movement, and here Shaham’s violin sound was ably partnered by Allegra Lilly’s harp. Two other instruments that Bartok used vividly were the celesta and the tympani. Bartok’s finale had passages that presaged his “Concerto for Orchestra,” and the sustained intensity of Shaham’s playing and the fine response from the orchestra resulted in a standing ovation. As encore, Shaham got concertmaster David Halen to join with him in giving a lighthearted reading of No. 43, “Pizzicato,” of Bartok’s Duos for Two Violins. Although the gesture seemed improvised, Shaham and Halen sounded as if they had prepared their performance.
Shaham is in process of recording CDs of great violin concertos of the 1930s, and the Bartok Concerto No. 2 is in the second CD, with an orchestra conducted by Denève. Shaham had previously recorded it in Chicago with Pierre Boulez.
In the great Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, conductor Denève showed a personal touch. At the point of musical climax, he tended to give the music an urgent push, which lent an extra excitement to a very familiar score. The playing of this orchestra in the second movement was especially lovely, with suave playing from the horns and the solo clarinet, topped off by a lush replay of the second theme of the movement by the massed strings.
The Scherzo movement blazed forth, and the final movement, in the form of a passacaglia (with 30 variations), marched to its ultimate, grandiose destiny.
In the tumultuous ovation that followed, Denève indicated soloists and sections for bows, and in the process he kissed the hands of the section chief ladies. Ah, the French touch! After all, the French have been in St. Louis for a long time.