As we approached the exultant coda of Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 Friday morning [February 27, 2009] at Powell Hall, I was suddenly reminded of a passage in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus in which the Venticelli (Shaffer's equivalent of a Greek chorus) complain about Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. "All those weird harmonies", they snipe, "and never a good bang at the end...so you know when to clap". Had those fictional constructs been present that morning, they would have been pleased; if it has nothing else, the "Organ" symphony certainly has a good bang at the end, and the St. Louis Symphony and organ soloist John Romeri certainly delivered it.
Fortunately, the French master's third has more going for it than mere bombast. Written as a homage to Franz Liszt (who died shortly after work on the symphony had begun), the work includes prominent roles for piano and organ - the two instruments most closely associated with the late composer. Saint-Saëns also employs one of Liszt's favorite compositional techniques: the development of an elaborate musical structure from a single motif - in this case, a rising four-note phrase first played by the oboe in the short opening Adagio. Over the course of the ensuing half-hour, a majestic oak of a symphony grows from that little acorn. Like many of Saint-Saëns compositions, the Third Symphony ingeniously combines musical intelligence with popular appeal, and I like to think that the standing ovation it got on Friday was an acknowledgement both the work's head and heart.
It was also, of course, an acknowledgement of the Symphony's virtuoso performance. Under the baton of Jun Märkl, who moved the first movement's allegro moderato along at a sometimes hair-raising pace, the musicians performed as one finely-tuned instrument. The woodwinds and strings tossed off rapid passages with ease, sectional balance was always quite good and, yes, the finale had a certified rouser. Granted, the electronic organ didn't have the presence of The Real Thing, but music reproduction technology has come a long way in recent years. A subwoofer isn't the same as a 32' pipe but, to paraphrase The Bard, 'twas enough and did suffice.
Unlike Saint-Saëns and Liszt, Antonín Dvorák wasn't primarily a pianist. His first musical loves were the violin and viola, so it's not surprising that his works for strings - especially the quartets - are among his most profound and admired. That being the case, it was probably inevitable that his Op. 33 Piano Concerto, written at the request of the Czech pianist Karel Slavkovsky, would turn out to be the ugly stepsister among his solo works. Snubbed by critics and viewed with disappointment by the composer himself (“I see I am unable to write a Concerto for a virtuoso”), the concerto has languished over the years despite advocacy by noted pianists such as Rudolf Firkusny, who gave the work its local premiere in 1969, six years after his landmark recording.
Listening to Friday's performance with Garrick Ohlsson at the keyboard, I think I can see one reason for the neglect. Although technically challenging, the piano part isn't particularly flashy and doesn't stand out all that much from the orchestra. It's almost as though Dvorák had written a symphony with piano rather than a traditional late-19th-century concerto. Revisions to the piano part in the early 20th century by Czech pianist Vilém Kurz and, in the early 1960s, by Firkusny don't seem to have substantially altered the concerto's fortunes. Perhaps pianists see the game as not being worth the candle. In any case, Ohlsson and the SLSO made a very persuasive case for this rarity. He and Märkl appeared to take considerable delight in the performance, and the overall joy was infectious.
Maybe this is the sort of piece that just needs a great deal of TLC to be effective. If so, it certainly got all that and more. Audience response was so warm and sustained, in fact, that Ohlsson came back for an encore: Chopin's Waltz in E-Flat (Op. 18, No. 1), performed with the grace and wit that you would expect of a former Chopin International Piano Competition winner.
The concert opened with the evergreen Les Preludes by the man memorialized by “Organ” Symphony, Franz Liszt. Märkl and the SLSO musicians could probably do this chestnut in their sleep but there was nothing routine or slapdash about the performance. The winds did overpower the strings in the climaxes, but overall it was an effective reading with all the drama and punch you'd expect.
Friday's program will be repeated Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM [February 28 and March 1]; for ticket information call 314-534-1700. For lovers of the Romantic repertoire in general and Dvorák or Saint-Saëns in particular the concert is, of course, a “must see”. Besides, there's a really good bang at the end.
Next at Powell Hall: The Hubbard Street Dance company March 6th and 7th performing to music of Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bernstein, Britten and Mozart. David Robertson will be at the podium. Visit the SLSO web site at slso.org for details.