Sunday, October 12, 2014

Concert Review: Tchaikovsky's big bang gets a nuanced performance by Cristian Macelaru and the St. Louis Symphony

Cristian Macelaru
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with soloists Joo Kim and James Czyzewski, conducted by Cristian Macelaru
What: All-Tchaikovsky program
When: Friday through Sunday, October 10-12, 2014
Where: Powell Symphony Hall

Parking for Friday morning's all-Tchaikovsky concert by the St. Louis Symphony was an adventure, and not just because of the rain. An unusually large crowd jammed parking lots and the Powell Hall lobby. Blame the late Russian composer; his music never fails to draw a crowd.

There are good reasons for that. His ability to spin a memorable melody is matched by an approach to musical structure which, while sometimes clunky or repetitive, nevertheless produces compositions that are clear and easy to follow. At his best, he's irresistible. At his worst—well—he's still Tchaikovsky and still worth a listen.

Tchaikovsky in 1906
I don't know that anything on this weekend's program counts as Tchaikovsky's best (although the "Romeo and Juliet—Fantasy Overture" comes close) but none of it could be called his worst. And the performances by the orchestra under guest conductor Cristian Macelaru are pretty much beyond reproach.

The former Resident Conductor at the Shepherd School of Music at my alma mater, Rice University, Mr. Macelaru is making his SLSO debut with these concerts, and an auspicious one it is. He makes the most of Tchaikovsky's heart-on-sleeve romanticism as well as his high drama, and does it with impressive precision. He's not afraid to use a bit of rubato for the flutes-and-horns theme in the trio section of the "Eugene Onegin" polonaise, for example, or to linger a bit with the "love theme" in "Romeo and Juliet." Which makes the wonderful clarity of the "battle" sequences in that piece all the more impressive. For me, in fact, his "Romeo and Juliet" was the high point of the program—dramatic, compelling, and emotionally potent.

The high quality of the orchestral playing has a lot to do with that, of course. I've always thought that playing these morning concerts must be a bit of a trial, especially for the brass and percussion players (for whom Tchaikovsky provides quite a workout), but the musicians were clearly up to the challenge.

Joo Kim
Sandwiched between the "Eugene Onegin" polonaise and "Romeo and Juliet" are two lovely little pieces for soloist and orchestra.

The "Sérénade mélancolique," op. 26, for violin and orchestra opens and closes on (as you might guess from the title) a wistfully sad note, but there's something rather like joy in the more dramatic middle section, so the soloist gets to display a nice emotional range. Joo Kim, from the SLSO's First Violin section, gave a warm and agile performance, doing full justice to the piece's varying moods.

The "Pezzo capriccioso," op. 62 for cello and orchestra is probably the least familiar work on the program. Dating from 1887, it is (the title not withstanding) a mostly rather dramatic piece, although the lively and virtuosic middle section (a quick restatement of which makes up the work's coda) certainly has its "capricious" elements. Soloist James Czyzewski (who has been with the SLSO for a decade now) was equally persuasive in the dramatic and "capricious" sections. From our seats in the dress circle boxes he was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra, but that is something of a recurring problem with Powell's acoustics, in my experience.

James Czyzewski
The second half of the program this weekend consists of Tchaikovsky's Greatest Hit, "The Year 1812, festival overture," preceded by his rarely heard (the last SLSO performance was 25 years ago) "The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasy After Shakespeare." Regarding the former, I'm reminded of Garrison Keillor's observation that best pumpkin pie you've ever eaten isn't that much different from the worst pumpkin pie you've ever eaten. I think something similar applies to the "1812" in that it doesn't demand a lot of artistry; fast and loud will usually do it. Nevertheless, artistry is what it got from Mr. Macelaru and the orchestra, and if the lack of an extra brass band made the finale slightly less impressive than it might have been, the use of the 8-foot-tall "Mahler box" (constructed to provide the "axe blow" effect in Mahler's 6th) for the cannon shots more than made up for it. Percussionist Henry Claude was wielding the mallet.

"The Tempest" poses more of a challenge. It's filled with intensely cinematic music, including an appropriately rapturous love theme for Ferdinand and Miranda along with vivid depictions of the sea and the titular storm, but it's also highly episodic. Making sure it never comes to a complete standstill while honoring the composer's many moods strikes me as difficult, but once again Mr. Macelaru proved fully up to the task. It was a real joy to finally hear a coherent, well-thought-out live performance of a piece that I had only heard on recordings before.

The orchestral playing was excellent as well. There are, for example, some dangerously exposed horn lines in the evocative "sea" music of the opening, but after one unfortunate opening note the symphony horns completely nailed them.

The concert repeats on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 11 and 12, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. Saturday's concert will also be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via web streaming.

Next at Powell Hall: Leonard Slatkin returns for the Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique," Cindy McTee's "Einstein's Dream," and the Bruch "Violin Concerto No. 1" with SLSO Concertmaster David Halen. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 17 and 19. David Robertson conducts the orchestra and soloists Lang Lang, piano, and Mark Sparks, flute, in Bach's "Orchestra Suite No. 2" and Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1" Saturday, October 19, at 8:30 p.m.  The concert is part of the annual Red Velvet Ball formal fundraising event.  For more information, visit the SLSO web site..

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