A week ago Saturday, fresh from a great but aurally-limited performance of Brahms 4 in Kansas City, Sandy and I hopped in the car and went down I-70 towards St. Louis for a double bill featuring the St. Louis Symphony in Powell Hall followed by Louis CK at the Fox Theatre. On our way, we stopped for lunch in Columbia, MO, home of the University of Missouri, a pretty delicious natural foods restaurant, and the worst coffee in this and presumably any other galaxy. Seriously, I’ve had coffee twice there, at places recommended by people that I otherwise respect, and both times the cups have ended up in the trash after one sip. On the plus side, I bought this shirt, which I’ve had my eye on for years. There was also an inexplicable traffic jam that held us up for an hour or so leaving town, but we made it to St. Louis in one piece, took a nap, and got ready for a long night of awesomeness.
I’ll start at the end. We went to a pretty interesting tapas bar called Sanctuaria in some area of town that was sketchy enough for me to shift 100% into head-on-a-swivel mode. It was good, though, and they had Pappy van Winkle bourbon, which I’ve come to enjoy (and am probably done enjoying now that I’m unemployed). I don’t want to say that I felt like my life was in danger, but I definitely wanted to get to and from the car in a big fucking hurry.
Louis CK was popular enough to sell out two shows in one night, and we were in attendance at the second of these shows, which began at 10:30. The Fox Theatre, which is apparently fabulous, was mostly pretty cool. The opening act, Todd Glass, was pretty meh, but CK was about what I expected, which is a high compliment because I expected a lot. He was very funny, talked about a lot of fucked up shit, and was generally who I kind of assumed he would be. Having said that…I don’t imagine I’ll ever go see a standup show again, because I never once got the feeling that there was something more special about being there. I would have been quite a bit happier watching that exact same routine on my couch, not next to two dudes who smelled like stale smoke and piss and a guy who took a break from being in the Lollipop Guild to be there. Unlike live music, or live theater, or an art exhibition, live standup doesn’t seem to carry any additional weight- I certainly can’t say there was “electricity” in the air. Time will tell.
The highlight of the entire weekend was the performance by David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony of the greatest live music event that can possibly occur in the realm of human existence: Mahler’s gargantuan Symphony no. 3. The Third doesn’t have the cache of Beethoven 9, it doesn’t have the life-altering power of Mahler 2, it doesn’t have the sheer magnitude of Gurrelieder or Mahler 8, but it’s the biggest and best piece of music that man ever conceived. This was my third live performance, and it damn sure won’t be my last. There are several reasons why it’s the greatest live music event that could ever possibly be, but ultimately it comes down to two things: it’s so God damn long and it runs the absolute gamut of emotion. The funny thing about it being so God damn long, though, is that it doesn’t feel like it in the heat of the performance – nothing feels superfluous or overdone, it just feels like a guy saying “Jesus, man, how else am I supposed to write music that encompasses the entire human experience?” But fuck, man, this piece has it all.
The performance itself was superb, with two musicians in particular leaving indelible impressions on me: principal trombone Tim Myers, who played the solos in the first movement with an absolutely earth-shaking intensity, and associate principal trumpet Mike Walk , who had one of the best nights I’ve ever heard a musician have. His posthorn solo was smooth like Al Green, and his work on that obscenely difficult melody at the end of the piece (the one in unison with the trombone, who was also superb, but holy shit what a dick move by Mahler for writing that part). The horns were a BIT disappointing on the loud bits, but the more nuanced playing was outstanding, especially in the 3rd and 4th movements. I was also frustrated by principal oboist Peter Bowman, who sounded like he was a complete and total bad ass but focused so much on things like balance and texture and being properly in tune with his colleagues that he failed to abandon basic musical principles to bowl me over with his gorgeous sound.
Three thoughts immediately came to mind at the conclusion of this generally fantastic performance, and all were entirely (or at least mostly) non-musical in nature. First, I hate the focus on “star” quality that comes with works like this. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who was simply terrific in the 4th movement, received the type of treatment from the conductor and audience that would have led one to assume she had sang Act II of Tristan during her time onstage. I understand that she was wearing a horrendous red dress and stood at the front, but really? After everything the principal trumpet did, he doesn’t even get a solo bow until a curtain call, and even then, not the first one (admittedly the trombone received that one, so I’m less outraged than what I might normally be – did I mention that I’m unemployed and think about this shit too much?)? God love her, Susan Graham was terrific, but the trumpet playing was otherworldly and unfathomably beautiful. Second, Powell Hall had that “opened up” sound I was looking for. The orchestra was twice the size of the Brahms orchestra the previous night in Kansas City, but it really erupted when it had to. I’ll know from the first note of Carmina Burana next month if Helzberg Hall has what it takes to make that happen. Lastly, the notion of clapping only at the end of a piece, while certainly within the bounds of protocol, can be taken entirely too literally. How in holy hell can you not applaud the end of the first movement of Mahler 3? You’ve heard 35 minutes of music end in a manic frenzy and you’re just supposed to sit there? That doesn’t make any sense! I had that same feeling the last time I heard Sibelius 5 live. How can we let that shit slip by unrecognized? No way.
So who wins in the epic battle between Kansas City and St. Louis? Orchestrally, it’s a wash – St. Louis has an overall level of musicianship that is higher than that in Kansas City, but Kansas City has a performance space that lends itself to magic, especially if the lack of “all systems go” power was a fluke based on seat location. Food-wise, it’s a tough call – St. Louis has Mai Lee, which kicks the living shit out of any ethnic restaurant within 200 miles of where I’m sitting right now, but Kansas City has the jump on high-end New American cuisine (we ate at The Tavern, voted best spot in town for 2011 in STL and can probably name five places in KC that do that style better). City-wise, it’s not close – St. Louis is infinitely a more interesting place that actually has districts with, you’re not going to believe this, restaurants and shops that are local and open during normal human leisure hours. You may have won this round, St. Louis, but wait until football season. Wait.