News Column

Music review: SLSO provides ripe Beethoven and thought-provoking Dean

January 25, 2014

By Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jan. 25 --This weekend's concerts by music director David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra were officially a part of the SLSO's four-week Beethoven Festival. The focus Friday night at Powell Symphony Hall , however, was more on composer-violist Brett Dean . Dean, an Australian who left the security of the Berlin Philharmonic to strike out on his own, was all over the place: as one of 12 violists performing his "Testament," as the soloist in his viola concerto, even as a member of the viola section in the second half, Beethoven 's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, "Eroica." Beethoven was the catalyst for "Testament," inspired by the "Heiligenstadt Testament." Beethoven wrote his brothers from the village of Heiligenstadt, expressing despair over the loss of his hearing; after his death, it was found among his papers. Despite that anguish, he wrote some of his greatest music, including the "Eroica," soon after. Dean wrote "Testament" for a dozen violists who initially play with bows that haven't been rosined and thus make little noise. What sound they do make, as they scrub furiously over the strings, begins as jittering squeaks, to invoke the torments of tinnitus. The players gradually switch to rosined bows, and the squeaks give way to passages from Beethoven 's "Razumovsky" Quartets and cascades of sound. There was a strong visual element to the performance, with an image of the "Testament" projected onto the large screen above the players. They stood in a semicircle around Robertson, chairs turned to provide shelves for their spare bows. It was a striking and affecting performance. Dean returned with the full orchestra to solo in his Viola Concerto. The viola has a lovely sound but is rarely a solo instrument. It's more usually the butt of bad jokes (Q: How do you keep your violin from getting stolen? A: Put it in a viola case), and it was good to see it featured. Dean's music is busy and challenging, with skittering passages that dare the ear to follow them. The concerto begins mysteriously, with quiet notes from a marimba and flutes simply blown through under the viola; then the soloist starts moving and so does the rest of the orchestra. Things get downright noisy before returning to mystery for its conclusion. As soloist, Dean demonstrated that the phrase "viola virtuoso" is anything but an oxymoron; he's an impressive, technically skilled performer. As composer, he erred in extending the concerto too far for the ideas available. It was a good 10 minutes too long. It would benefit from editing; sometimes less really is more. Robertson is clearly in sympathy with Dean's work, and led both works with intelligence and feeling. Dean could be found at the last stand in the viola section for the "Eroica," which was given a big Romantic reading by Robertson. Despite some balance problems in the second movement, where the winds tended to overpower the strings, it had a sense of joy throughout, from its sprightly beginning to an energetic conclusion. ___ (c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

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