If only every orchestral concert were as thoughtfully programmed as the Saint Louis Symphony’s last Saturday. David Robertson led his orchestra in Debussy’s Printemps, an ingratiating early work; the Carnegie Hall premiere of Quatre Instants by Kaija Saariaho with the irrepressible soprano Karita Mattila; and the full-length version of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Each piece contrasted with and complemented the others, demonstrating different aspects of French music from one French composer and two expatriates (both Saariaho and Stravinsky spent considerable time in Paris). One wished for just a bit more momentum from the podium, but the loveliness was still hard to resist.

David Robertson
David Robertson

Who knew that Debussy tried his hand at writing catchy tunes? The 25-year-old composer wrote Printemps in 1887 as a work for orchestra and wordless chorus, but that score was lost. In 1913, composer Henri Büsser orchestrated it under Debussy’s supervision. The work has the fingerprints of Debussy’s style, without fully revealing the inventive orchestrator and formal innovator that he would later become. A solo flute begins a lilting melody, continued in the violas and the solo horn, then tossed about in dialogue with the wind section. All the while, ninth chords and “blue” harmonies poke their heads out, hinting at the colorful harmonies of the mature Debussy. The piece always seems like it’s just about to end, only to wander off to another meandering tune. The orchestra gave a committed and poised performance, with Robertson sensitively shaping the phrases and carefully blending the sound.

Kaija Saariaho, the first female Finnish composer to gain international recognition, is one of today’s most influential composers. Her music is notable for its unselfconscious originality, yet it still manages to sound like a logical continuation of the classical tradition. Quatre Instants was originally written in 2002 for her fellow countrywoman Karita Mattila with piano accompaniment; Saariaho orchestrated it to deepen its “vast expressive scale” while keeping the “clear, bright sound as in the original,” as she puts it.

The four brief poems come from her collaborator Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese-born French writer who also wrote the libretto to Saariaho’s first opera L’amour de loin. Each song depicts phases of a woman’s intensely emotional love affair. “Attente”, with images of the woman as a boat adrift from her unreachable lover, was filled with floating, swimming textures and rising half-steps in the voice. “Douleur” was violently exclamatory, with Mattila crying out the line “remorse devours me!” “Parfum de l’instant,” which evokes distance simultaneously with intimacy, was dreamy and static, with cascading motifs falling from the orchestra. The last poem, “Résonances,” recalled images from the earlier three, but with a more glacial setting around each declaimed line, building to fortissimo before dying out at the end. Mattila, as she always does, gave her all in the performance, embodying Saariaho’s assessment of the “vastly expressive spectrum of her voice.” Her characterization was at times a touch overwrought, with some pacing and handwringing. But emotion was in every note she sang, whether it was a high, shimmering forte or a low, guttural sigh.

Stravinsky’s Firebird most often appears on concert programs as a suite, which is a pity, as this omits so much fascinating music. Written in 1910, it was the breakthrough piece for the 28-year-old composer, the first of his great ballet trilogy, followed by Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky said the work’s narrative was “as literal as an opera,” dispensing with traditional ballet’s sets of dance numbers to tell the story in an uninterrupted flow. The plot is a mashup of various Russian fairy tales, involving a prince and a princess, a bad guy and a magical bird; the rest, in concert, is best left to the imagination. Hearing the full work, rather than the suites, allows one to hear the recitative-like passages which drive the drama between the well-known tunes. They contain some of the score’s most daring and inventive music and give more depth to the story, making the demons more vivid and the triumph at the end more compelling.

Robertson set the stage for a spooky and magical calm, from the beautifully-shaped triple piano in the cellos and basses at the very beginning, to the Berceuse (lullaby) with its haunting bassoon solo (played beautifully by Mark Cuneo). Gorgeous colors came from each section, especially the woodwinds during the “Supplication of the Firebird,” and Robertson placed trumpets throughout the hall for the climactic moments. But the calmness seeped into more lively sections as well, such as the polyrhythmic “Dance of the Firebird,” which needed more animal alertness. The “Infernal Dance” was at the correct tempo, but lacked momentum and bite until its last few bars. Still, the finale was stately and robust, and Robertson brought the work to a majestic finish.