Guest conductor and soloist bring storm and song to the symphony until Sunday |

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Elim Chan is the kind of guest conductor around whom a symphony will build themes with references to the Chinese calendar and the Asian Chamber of Commerce, as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra did on Saturday night. So it was an interesting choice to pair her on the opening track of the program with another featured artist, a guest soloist, who is not Asian and stole the show.

Multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger, from the distinctly non-Asian city of Salzburg, stole the show on a piece by an Asian composer, “The Tears of Nature” by Tan Dun (b. 1957 in Changsha, China). And it was inevitable that Grubinger would catch the attention of the conductor and the featured orchestra, as this is a performance piece composed for him.






Multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger




“While I was composing, I thought of nature,” writes Tan Dun in the program notes, “and concentrated on the passion of Martin Grubinger.” Passion and athleticism, that is – Grubinger prowled the Powell Hall stage during the performance as the tiger who also came to Tan Dun’s mind while composing the notes.

One would expect a percussion concerto that meditates on nature to deviate from the calmer aspect of nature that can be evoked by strings and woodwinds. The nature referred to here by Tan Dun is the cataclysmic nature of earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. “The Tears of Nature” was more like the furious, furious explosion of nature. It was the loudest piece of music I’ve ever heard Powell play – the symphony as Stomp.

For much of “The Tears of Nature,” which the orchestra was performing for the first time, Grubinger might as well have played alone. He was a one-man earthquake, tsunami and hurricane, drowning out all other instruments. It’s clearly a design rather than an overplaying product, because when Grubinger switched from drums to vibraphone, he integrated beautifully with woodwinds, brass and strings.

In the second half of the program, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra sounded like the balanced yet dynamic ensemble we know and love. Elim Chan conducted Tchaikovsky’s relatively underperformed ‘Symphony No. 2 in C Minor’. It was last performed by the orchestra in 2012, when the young guest conductor was still a graduate music student at the University of Michigan.

In this symphony, Tchaikovsky was not inspired by the brute force of a natural disaster but rather by the human voice – and the voice that sings, not shouts. It is a symphony built around Ukrainian folk song with the woodwinds and brass tuned in the range and tones of plaintive human song. The first folk song the composer quotes is “Down the Mother Volga”, a song about a mighty river with a thunderstorm in the lyrics (which are not sung in the symphony), but after Martin Grubinger’s performance even the suggestion of a thunderstorm with rumbling timpani looked like a light snowfall.

Left alone at the head of the orchestra without the prowler Martin Grubinger, Elim Chan was not the kind of flashy conductor who imposes his personality on a piece of music. She was passionate yet precise, and the orchestra seemed fluid and confident in her hands. The Hong Kong of his childhood may be far removed culturally and associatively from Ukraine, where Tchaikovsky took over snippets of folk songs sung by the house butler for his second symphony, but together the conductor he orchestra, composer and orchestra made Powell Hall shine like a warm home on a cold February night.

The show is resumed today, Sunday February 6, at 3 p.m.

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