Saturday, April 26, 2014

Youth's magic piano

Conrad Tao
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin with piano soloist Conrad Tao
What: Music of Roberto Sierra, Saint-Saëns, and Copland
When: April 25–27, 2014
Where: Powell Symphony Hall

[Find out more about the music with the symphony program notes and my symphony preview post.]

When pianist Conrad Tao appeared with the SLSO in February of 2013—as a last-minute replacement for an ailing Markus Groh—I described him as a tremendously talented young man at the beginning of what looked like a very promising career. This weekend Mr. Tao (who is still not 20 years old) validated that judgment with a Saint-Saëns "Piano Concerto No. 2" that was a model of power and delicacy.

The concerto is easily the French master's most popular essay in the form (he wrote five). It gets off to a big, dramatic start with a solo keyboard fantasia, of the sort Bach might have written, followed by an equally dramatic entrance on the part of the full orchestra. Mr. Tao's performance of the opening mini-cadenza was appropriately splashy, but not overpoweringly so. It set the tone for a performance that did full justice to the composer's keyboard pyrotechnics without ever descending into mere flash for flash's sake.

Mr. Tao's ability to project a more delicate sound was most obvious in the second movement—a fleet-footed scherzo with a piano part that sparkles like Champagne. A less sensitive player might (to carry on the metaphor) cause the bubbles to go flat, but Mr. Tao remained effervescent.

The manic tarantella finale that followed generated all the required thrills and resulted in a much-deserved standing ovation. That, in turn, resulted in an encore that gave Mr. Tao a chance to truly show off: the concluding Vivace—Moderato—Vivace from Prokofiev's "Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor," Op. 14 (1912). The movement is a wild, percussive ride that covers almost the entire eight octaves of the keyboard and even (with its repeated triplets) suggests something of the tarantella—which makes it a most appropriate choice following the concerto.

Leonard Slatkin
Under the capable baton of favorite son Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra provided nicely balanced accompaniment. The interplay between soloist and ensemble was simply ideal.

The featured work this weekend is Aaron Copland's "Symphony No. 3." A product of the final years of World War II (the composer began working on it in Mexico in 1944 and completed it just in time for its October 1946 premiere), the symphony perfectly captures the forward-looking optimism that characterized America Victorious. As Copland writes in his autobiography, the Third "was a wartime piece—or, more accurately, and end-of-war piece—intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time."

Friday morning, Mr. Slatkin and the orchestra gave us a performance that did full justice to both the exuberant and contemplative aspects of this music. The finale, with its cheerfully bombastic expansion on the 1942 "Fanfare for the Common Man," was thoroughly rousing; the third movement Andantino quasi allegretto was sweetly nostalgic; and the opening Molto moderato had the gravitas it needs. The rapid passages of the Allegro molto second movement were executed with impressive precision, despite some fairly fast tempo choices by Mr. Slatkin.

A couple of split notes not withstanding, the expanded brass section covered itself with glory Friday morning. The super-sized percussion section (six musicians, not counting the piano and celesta) was particularly impressive as well. There was also lovely work by the winds, especially in the quieter moments just before the final statement of the "fanfare" theme in the final movement.

Roberto Sierra
The concert opened with a local premiere, Roberto Sierra's "Fandangos" from 2000. The work was commissioned by Mr. Slatkin and was inspired by a "Fandango" for harpsichord by Spanish composer Antonio Soler (1729–83). Quoted in Paul Schiavo's program notes, the composer describes the piece as “a fantasy, or a ‘super-fandango,' that takes as point of departure Soler's work and incorporates elements of Boccherini's fandango and my own Baroque musings.”

In practice, that translates as a lively, kaleidoscopic elaboration on Soler's original that ripples through every section of the ensemble—a kind of mini-"concerto for orchestra" that gave everyone a chance to show off. It was a great choice for an orchestra with the SLSO's depth of talent and was enormous fun to hear. Mr. Slatkin, as you might expect, knows the music well—he conducted without a score—so I think one would have to regard his performance as definitive.

The concert will be repeated Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, April 26 and 27, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. The Saturday performance will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via live Internet stream. With a piece like the Copland Third, though, the live experience is highly recommended.

Next at Powell: Carlos Izcaray conducts orchestra and chorus in Orff's ever-popular "Carmina Burana" and Steve Reich's "The Four Sections" Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, May 1–4. For more information:

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