Eastern Kingdom in the Midwest

Dan Albertson

[May 2013.]

[This article and the one to follow about Boston represent surveys analogous to my ongoing series of “Snapshots,” with orchestras under examination instead of composers. Thank you, Erika Ebsworth-Goold, and congratulations, Yan Xiao.]


Franz von SUPPÉ: Overture to Ein Morgen, Mittag und Abend in Wien (1844). Franz SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759, ‘Unfinished’ (1822). Alexander ZEMLINSKY: Lyrische Symphonie, Op. 18 (1922–23)*. Christine Brewer (sop)*, Lucas Meachem (bar)*, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson (cond.). Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis, MO, May 4, 2013. http://www.stlsymphony.org/.

Here was a concert of music from Vienna that, for once, ignored Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart. Schubert is a usual suspect; Suppé once was; and, alas, Zemlinsky never has been.

The overture by Suppé was given a tender reading. Robertson held back until near the end, with cellist Daniel Lee given ample space for his solo. The piece is not profound, but as an apéritif, one wonders why it has fallen out of fashion.

Next was the dreaded Unfinished. Despite its remarkable qualities it has suffered from the musical equivalent of soil erosion. I could not believe what I heard and left the performance in awe. From the outset, Robertson had the celli and basses dig in with  remarkable drama and vehemence. He set a tempo that he would not be able to maintain, I felt certain. To my amazement, he never slackened. The piece was finished in 21 minutes. The success of the performance owed as much to its structure as to its tempo, however: In the first movement, the chorales for winds stood as isles of repose in contrast to the heady, relentless churning around them, whereas the second movement balanced the lighter material against violent interludes. Using a small body of strings, numbering about 40, with almost no vibrato, one wonders where Robertson took his cues. He is certainly not known for any dalliance with period-performance praxis.

The main reason for my visit was Zemlinsky, whose neglected work is of much importance. Despite its faults in orchestration, which no baritone could surmount and which the symphony shares with its predecessor Das Lied von der Erde, Meachem was mostly underwhelming, even in softer sections. The score demands a singer with more heft in his voice than he possesses. His counterpart Brewer was more at ease, with greater variety in her tone. The orchestra, with what seems to be a young membership, produced a full, warm sound despite its small size. I wish that a real harmonium could have been used, instead of a synthesizer. Harmoniums seem to have become extinct.

As a footnote, I offer a theorem I call The Modernist Constant. It declares that any concert with established music on its first half and an obscure masterwork of the 20th century on its second half will see a marked decline in attendance. Indeed, more than half of my row emptied out at intermission and never returned. Several more people departed during the second Lied, “Mutter, der junge Prinz,” the closest approach in the Lyrische Symphonie to a memorable melody. Such ignorance is a contributing factor to the decline of orchestral standards in the USA. I thus commend Robertson for giving his audiences, or at least the willing parts thereof, the opportunity to move beyond tired repertory.