The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) turned a page on its intimate concert series at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation on Tuesday, April 18. This was the last SLSO show at the Pulitzer programmed by Tim Munro, who has moved back home to Australia - sad bassoon - yet Christopher Stark, a composer who teaches at Washington University, will curate the next season. Happy flute!
Munro's eloquent way of pulling together his programs in his introductions was missing in his absence for this final program. He led with five solo instrument miniatures by Dai Fujikura (composed between 2011 and 2020) for what amounts to the first half of a program performed without an intermission. The solo instrumentation for the five miniatures went horn, to bassoon - this was an unusually big night for the bassoon - to horn again, to flute, then, finally, to horn yet again.
The cumulative expression was elemental. The isolated soloists (with the exception, arguably, of the flute) are all instruments more often heard than seen in a symphony orchestra. Spotlighting unheralded instruments like the horn and bassoon alone on the stage already starts to tell a story, but the composer then distorts the instruments to tell unexpected and untold stories.
The first horn piece, performed by Thomas Jostlein, compels the player to make the instrument sound like an indigenous flute; it takes a lot of work to make a more resourceful instrument do less with feeling. The other two horn pieces also called for sounds not associated with this instrument: plungers that lended evanescent effects, repetitive figures that trended to discordant and even abrasive, and a baby tuba.
The bassoon miniature, performed by Andrew Cuneo, takes a role player instrument to the limits: the bassoon is a didgeridoo, it's a car problem, it's an archipelago of tentative explorations, it's a multimodal schizophrenic carjacking ending in a catastrophic car crash and death throes. All that in nine minutes. It's no wonder it was such a brief program. This was a less is way more kind of thing.
Matthew Roitstein, principal flutist for SLSO, spoke to the audience before the flute miniature, telling us it is titled for a bird and what bird sounds to expect in the music. That was an apt guide to the pecking noises and wing flutterings that flowed from his alto flute.
With such a good guide to the music, I found myself focussing on the incidental sounds of human fingers on flute and lungs expelling air, which was a constant feature of this intimate program and, indeed, of this intimate series more generally: we go to see SLSO players at the Pulitzer not only to hear, say, a bassoon, but also to hear a bassoon being played and to hear the player breathing and handling mouthpieces.
I am talking now about "Jasper and Charlie" (2021) by Paul Dean that concluded the program. Cuneo's bassoon was the lead voice in an ensemble that included Roitstein on flute, Xiomara Mass on Oboe, Victoria Knudtson on horn (Jostlein, clearly, needed a breather) and Scott Andrews on clarinet, the composer's own home instrument. Dean is one of the Australian composers we will be hearing less from with Tim Munro back down under, and I would love to hear Munro's take on this piece. My ears heard an intense ten minutes of virtuosic interplay between wind instruments (vibe: creepy circus), with the bassoon continuing to surprise with the longest story and the final word.
Speaking of final word: our loss of Tim Munro is our gain of Christopher Stark as the new curator of this important series. A Montana guy with ties to Cincinnati who has made St. Louis his home after WashU brought him here, Stark is a major contemporary composer who treasures all varieties of music. SLSO at the Pulitzer, one of the unique opportunities that makes St. Louis one of the greatest places in the world to listen to live music, is about to get even more interesting.
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