Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: Mostly Mozart with the St. Louis Symphony

Richard Goode
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson with pianist Richard Goode
What: Music of Mozart, Lutoslawski, and Tippett
When: January 17 and 18, 2015
Where: Powell Hall, St. Louis

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

We may never know who first applied the nickname "Jupiter" to Mozart's last symphony—American musicologist Daniel Heartz posits that it was impresario Johann Peter Salomon—but it's not hard to see why the name stuck.

Scott Andrews
The music has a kind of Olympian power and grandeur, along with a degree of structural clarity that makes it possibly the ideal Classical symphony. It's music brimming with vitality and optimism. It never fails to impress, especially when played with the kind of assurance and vigor David Robertson and the SLSO gave it this past Sunday.

Granted, this was modern, "big band" Mozart (although Thomas Stubbs was apparently using smaller period-reproduction tympani), but the performance had the kind of vitality I associate with smaller "original instrument" ensembles. The strong tempo and dynamic contrasts I have come to associate with Mr. Robertson were all there as usual, as was the attention to orchestral detail. The result was an impressive reading that reminded me of how much the "Jupiter" looks forward to the Romantic era while crystallizing the Classical style.

Kristin Ahlstrom
The other big Mozart work on the program—the "Piano Concerto No. 17" from 1784—fared just as well. Soloist Richard Goode played with a delicacy and fluid grace that was the aural equivalent of good Champagne—smooth, but bubbly and piquant. Mr. Goode was clearly wrapped up in the music, often singing or humming to himself (inaudibly, at least from the dress circle) and generally showing signs of intense concentration and pleasure.

The orchestra responded well to Mr. Robertson's direction and played impeccably. Mozart put a lot of reliance on the winds in this concerto, and the SLSO players did not disappoint. They sounded splendid, especially in the emotional depths of the second movement.

Shawn Weil
Strong orchestral playing also characterized the two twentieth-century pieces that made of the rest of the program. The concert opened with a dazzling performance of Witold Lutoslawski's playful 1955 "Dance Preludes" by SLSO Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews. Quoted in the program notes, Mr. Andrews describes this brief (ten minute) piece as "very fun, rhythmic, based on the Polish folk tradition, but without taking direct quotations from folk music." Certainly that spirit of fun was present in the playing of both Mr. Andrews and the orchestra; there was even an occasional chuckle from some of us in the audience at the composer's little winks and nods.

David Kim
Sir Michael Tippett's "Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli" from 1953 (which opened the second half of the concert) is more substantial stuff. Scored for two string orchestras along with two solo violins and a solo cello, it takes an excerpt from the "Concerto grosso, op. 6, no. 2" by Arcangelo Corelli (published in 1741) and uses it as the foundation for an elaborate structure consisting of seven variations, a fugue, and a blissful finale.

The two violin soloists have perhaps the most challenging music, often trading licks like country fiddlers, but Kristin Ahlstrom and Shawn Weil (both members of the SLSO strings) were more than up to the task. The solo cellist doesn't get as many flashy passages, but SLSO Assistant Principal Cello David Kim did well by it. The solid, polished sound of the symphony strings back them up under Mr. Robertson's incisive direction.

Next at Powell: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus along with Kate Reimann, soprano; Johanna Nordhorn, mezzo-soprano; Keith Boyer, tenor; and Jeffrey Heyl, bass-baritone in an all-Beethoven program featuring the "Mass in C Major" and "Symphony No. 8" Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., January 23-25. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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