Monday, March 07, 2016

Concert Review: A dramatic Russian program with Gilbert Varga and the St. Louis Symphony, March 5 and 6, 2016

Gilbert Varga
Photo: Felix Broede
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Those of you Of a Certain Age may recall an ad campaign by Esso Oil (now Exxon Mobil) that promised to "put a tiger in your tank." St. Louis Symphony guest conductor Gilbert Varga had a tiger in his baton Saturday night, and the roaring was most impressive.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

The concert got off to an electrifying start with a thrilling performance of Tchaikovsky's "Hamlet, Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare," Op. 67. Written only a few years before the composer's death, the work shows the obsession with fate that permeates both his "Symphony No. 4" from 1878 and his "Symphony No. 5," which first saw the light of day in the same year as "Hamlet". It's powerful music with a strong sense of impending doom.

Working without a score, Mr. Varga used slashing, dramatic gestures in the service of a compelling interpretation that brought out every bit of the composer's high drama without sacrificing clarity or descending into exaggeration. The opening "fate" motif was arresting, the appearance of the ghost alarming, and the sad little oboe melody that represents Ophelia (beautifully played by Phil Ross) was truly poignant. It was a vivid and breathtaking performance, skillfully played.

The same can be said of the Shostakovich "Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major," Op. 102, that followed. Written for the composer's son Maxim and first performed by Maxim on his 19th birthday, the concerto is an unambiguously (and uncharacteristically) happy work. Soloist Denis Kozhukhin handled the exuberant and fiercely difficult passages in the outer movements with ease and style while playing the charming and unabashedly sentimental second movement with sensitivity.

Denis Kozhukhin
Mr. Kozhukhin is one of those "heads down" pianists who maintain a laser-like focus on the keyboard while playing, but that clearly did not prevent him from being attentive to what was happening in the orchestra. Critics have praised this young (born in 1986) Russian pianist for his balance of technique and interpretive depth, and based on what I saw and heard Saturday night I'd have to agree.

The concert concluded with selections from Prokofiev's 1936 "Romeo and Juliet" ballet. Culled from the two orchestral suites the composer put together around the same time as the ballet's premiere, the seven selections capture the dramatic arc of Shakespeare's play in a little over a half hour of colorful and varied music that demonstrates Prokofiev's skill as an orchestrator.

As he did with the Tchaikovsky, Mr. Varga delivered, from memory, a high-octane interpretation filled with grand gestures, strong contrasts, and a fine feel for the many wonderful orchestral details, which were performed flawlessly by members of the orchestra. Scott Andrews's clarinet, Danny Lee's cello, and Nathan Nabb's tenor sax, for example, all contributed to the delicate beauty of "Juliet—The Young Girl."

The emotionally potent "Romeo and Juliet before Parting" gave us more striking individual performances from Mark Sparks and Jennifer Nichtman on flutes, Jonathan Chu on viola, and, towards the end, Michael Sanders on tuba and Erik Harris's bass section with their premonition of the tragedy to come. Roger Kaza's horn section sounded terrific in the big, sweeping passages in the middle of that same movement.

If you think that sounds like a true virtuoso performance, you're right. There were many other arresting moments, including Concertmaster David Halen's delicate solo in the "Dance of the Maids from the Antilles," but the bottom line is that this was another demonstration of the depth the orchestra's talent pool.

Mr. Varga has made several appearances with the orchestra since I've started covering it regularly, and he seems to have real rapport with the musicians. It's not unusual for a conductor to wade into the orchestra and ask individual players to stand during curtain calls, but Mr. Varga did so with real enthusiasm, even stopping to kiss the occasional cheek and otherwise display affection for the players. Witnessing that, it's impossible not to smile.

Next at Powell Hall, Leonard Slatkin conducts the orchestra and chorus in Berlioz's "dramatic symphony" "Roméo et Juliette" Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., March 11 and 12. The program concludes the Symphony's four-week Shakespeare Festival. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information, visit the symphony web site.

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