The spirit of the St. Louis Symphony, until now, hasn't seemed quite able to handle head winds.
The orchestra, which was transformed under music director David Robertson from the dull and dispirited ensemble he took over in 2005 into one of America's most imaginative, travels often enough to New York (and has toured Europe) with exciting, quirky programs. Meanwhile, Robertson, a Malibu native, spends quality time on the West Coast as an enthusiastically intrepid regular guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (where he returns next month) and the San Francisco Symphony. He has been an irrepressible music director of the Ojai Music Festival as well.
But Robertson's one previous tour with the St. Louisans to Southern California three years ago was a slight disappointment. A surprisingly lackluster program of Mozart and Stravinsky at Walt Disney Concert Hall didn't quite click despite some scintillating moments.
After its first appearance at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa Monday night, however, the St. Louis Symphony need no longer sing the blues. The program was odd, if not as odd as Robertson's programs can be, and basically audience-friendly. Warm-up time was necessary. Fear of head winds doesn't mean fear of acoustics; the orchestra didn't allow time for a sound check in its tight tour schedule. But the evening overall offered a good example of what the fuss should be about.
Each half began with a popular early Strauss tone poem. The first, "Don Juan," was where the acoustical adjustments were needed. Robertson revealed a flamboyant, rapacious Don, too big and bold for his surroundings.
For "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," Robertson, who is about as merry a prankster as any major maestro today, let loose fantastical orchestral mayhem. One could almost hear him saying "isn't this amazing," delighting in every bar as he brought more details to life than seemed possible. The St. Louis sound is tight, focused and flexible. The ensemble turns on a dime, but solo playing also can be very beautiful.
A hallmark of Robertson's tenure has been a remarkable focus on new music. He has just recorded John Adams' "City Noir" in St. Louis for a future Nonesuch release, and it is a pity he didn't take it on tour. The score was commissioned by the L.A. Phil for Gustavo Dudamel's first Disney gala in 2009. A different interpretation would have been of great interest.
Robertson did, though, include Christopher Rouse's Flute Concerto, written two decades ago. It is an exploration of Rouse's Irish roots, though the orchestra missed St. Patrick's Day by a day. Three of the five movements flirt with sentimentality. The other two flirt with jigs. Rouse, who this season became composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic, is quoted in the program book as being no avant-gardist but, rather, a Romantic.
That underestimates his capacity for excess and a taste for outrageousness along with rapt expression, all of which makes him anything but a pallid neo-Romantic crowd-pleaser. The opening and closing song-like movements are sweet, but also potently alcoholic, more White Russians than Guinness. The long central movement, which mourns the murder of a 10-year-old British boy, begins maudlin but then turns angry and violent, becoming gripping, especially with Robertson cutting deep into orchestral bone.
The performance featured the orchestra's principal flutist, Mark Sparks, and was superb. Sparks has a grand tone, a strong sense of phrase and the good sense not to get schmaltzy. He doesn't, however, have good sense in clothes, wearing an oversized print shirt and rolled up sleeve, which neither flattered his body movements nor the music, from which it distracted.
Perhaps the St. Louis Symphony could use a fashion consultant. For its Disney appearance in 2010, the orchestra looked the other way while its soloist, Gil Shaham, sported a necktie that dropped about a half a foot below his waist.
The final work was Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" Symphony and it was conveyed with immaculate taste. Robertson steered clear of religiosity and put his emphasis on the inner life of Hindemith's counterpoint.
Music almost 80 years old and not uncommon — Zubin Mehta conducted it, quite differently, with the L.A. Phil at Disney in December — sounded new and uncommon. Orchestral colors were revealed at highest resolutions. The St. Louisans played with unfailing brilliance.