Igor Stravinsky conducting his Ebony Concerto, written in 1945 for Woody Herman (seated as solo clarinettist)

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of MissouriSt. Louis

The first and final concerts – Friday Jan 12 morning & Sunday Jan 21 afternoon – has been/will be recorded for future broadcast (respectively on Saturdays 20th & 27th at 7.30 p.m. on SLPR), and include the premiere of Jeff Beal’s Body in Motion, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This second (evening) programme was taken live (a potential sleep-through with London six hours ahead; however, and despite competing gremlins, my interest and an iron will saw me through). With Powell Hall undergoing renovation, SLS 23-24 concerts are decanting to Touhill and another venue. This relay from Touhill enjoyed excellent tangible sound that aided good listening.

Darius Milhaud in La Création du monde (1923, Paris) takes a big subject – arguably the biggest – and shrinks it to a jazz ensemble (including a drum-kit and a string quartet in which the viola is a saxophone), music that can be mournful, with a sleazy tinge, and raucous and nippy, moods constantly changing, with numerous solo spots, here taken with distinction as part of an expressive and colourful performance. The World was reportedly created over several days; Milhaud manages it in fifteen minutes. In Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, Kurt Weill arranges several numbers from his and Bertolt Brecht’s satirical “play with music”, The Threepenny Opera (1928, Berlin), for woodwind & brass ensemble plus piano, guitar, accordion, banjo and drum-kit. These are cabaret numbers, the best-known being ‘Mack the Knife’. The movements were performed with style and, selectively, a decadent edge.

In Ebony Concerto, SLS principal clarinet Scott Andrews took the Woody Herman role, whether suave or rapid, amidst the punchy writing (trumpets and saxes to the fore, plus piano and small drums, and other instruments). With the SLS at full strength for the first and only time, the concert ended with a swaggering account of Gershwin’s twenty-four-carat evergreen masterpiece, An American in Paris, given a performance – using a publication pre-dating the recent Critical Edition, which makes numerous changes and which Slatkin conducted when new – of panache (not least the snazzy trumpet solos), sensitivity and energy, reminding of those heady Slatkin/St. Louis years when he was music director, a partnership captured on numerous recordings, and still going strong in 2024.

An encore was arranged, literally by Cindy McTee, music from Alfred Newman’s score for the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette, including solos for violin and for cello – which, for a recording, were Leonard’s parents, Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Aller; in St. Louis, the SLS’s principal cellist (name missed*) and the ensemble’s long-serving concertmaster David Halen. Hollywood at its most widescreen and Technicolored, which Slatkin totally taps into.

(*Daniel Lee)

Darius Milhaud Le Création du monde
Igor Stravinsky Ebony Concerto (First SLSO performance)
Kurt Weill Suite from The Threepenny Opera
George Gershwin An American in Paris