The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's performance on Thursday, March 16 was a hometown dress rehearsal for its upcoming European tour, March 23-31. It should have encouraged music director Stephane Deneve and the SLSO that they have exactly what it takes to take this show on the road, while also maybe showing what might need tweaking.
A Powell Hall audience packed to the rafters on a cold, rainy night sent the band away with thunderous ovations that coaxed three encores. The final piece on the program, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances (1919), called for two of those encores. I was hammering my hands as hard as anyone, showing the love and asking for more.
In the Rachmaninoff, we heard the Deneve SLSO that has typified this season: fluent interplay of sections, unexpected instruments carrying rhythmic burden, indelible notes of perfectly timed and colored percussion, crescendos that move from instrument to instrument and section to section as if inevitably, the thrill of the dance breaking out at all times, the colors throughout the orchestra rightly resonant to the mood of the composition. Above all, we heard the poise of orchestration so nuanced that you often could not find the source of a particular sound before that sound changed into another sound that you also never chased down.
That is orchestral programming and ensemble musicianship ready for the world's stages. Good to go.
The middle selection of the touring program is Edvard Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A major" (1868), featuring Vikingur Olafsson on piano. Deneve is gutsy - touring your orchestra with such a virtuosic soloist owning a repertory piece as masterfully as Olafsson owned the Grieg poses the risk of eclipsing your own orchestra. Before cueing the Grieg, Deneve swayed on the conductor stand, left to right to left to right, like a boxer in his corner. He knew the fight he was in for.
The risk paid off. Olafsson was dramatic and cinematic: he tickled and pounded the piano and winced when Deneve flicked the orchestra at him. Olafsson seemed to play with more than two hands and with more than one piano. Deneve asked the orchestra to talk back to the piano, to give it a warm bed, to change its direction. Introducing the program at the beginning of the night, Deneve said he was excited to share with Europe the virtuosity and sense of color in this orchestra. Those precise traits, virtuosity and sense of color, were so direly needed with Olafsson playing Grieg, and they were right there - from the orchestra drum-rolling into the first piano key strike to the piano/timpani duet that prompted the orchestra to roll us out.
Talk about virtuosity and sense of color. The flutes and violas vibed as one. That spotlit the violas for detailed interplay with the piano soloist. The first piano solo proper was bedded by a lush, full-voice string section. The bassoon stepped in to change the tune into a whirly string fugue punctuated by brass. The piano solo ended with the double basses sawing under the piano chords to support the next change. The flutes, oboes and horns sang together in a new way. Deneve had fun finessing the violins with his left hand, then handing the musical challenge to Olafsson, who was always just exactly right where he needed to be.
If you tour Europe with such a distinctive and adept soloist as Olafsson, it helps to have staff micro soloists dotted throughout the orchestra and program. SLSO has that. On the Grieg, principal cellist Danny Lee stood out among many strong features. Actually, Lee sinks down more than he stands out. He leans back and holds his cello on his stomach like a big, beloved dog; he is the virtuosic low rider of cello first chairs. On the theater of the Powell stage, Lee scanned visually left to the conductor and then left to the soloist. That's a beautifully staged staff micro solo when you're touring a show-stopping guest soloist.
The touring program opens with Sergei Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges Suite (1919). (Note that the program begins and ends with compositions by a Russian dated 1919, reflect on Europe in 1919, then listen to John Cale's Paris, 1919.) Thursday's SLSO performance of this piece sounded more like a dress rehearsal than the spellbinding show opener it likely will become.
Prokofiev (and Rachmaninoff) would have known the revolutionary guidance that self-criticism must precede criticism of others if we want to be effective. Self-criticism: We were a noisy Powell Hall audience, and I believe that the conductor and musicians took some time to adjust to it. On a rainy night in a shoulder season, I heard at least 25 people (they coughed so often, one could track them) who should have stayed home. I get it - this concert was a big deal - and I do not want cough police tossing people out - but coughs are percussive events, and the beat is all when a conductor and musicians are trying to establish a conversation.
The coughing waned over the course of the night (some sick people went home) but never stopped. There also were random loud thumps akin to a cell phone face planting. One such thump was so loud that the conductor acknowledged it with a pause before cueing the orchestra to play the next movement. We were an intrusive audience.
The Love for Three Oranges Suite is a dynamic composition of the sort that Deneve's SLSO feasts on, but this performance did not provide the expected thrills. The loud house became a factor, but I saw something else that might have stunted the performance. In a dynamic composition where the woodwinds have so much game, Deneve seemed to conduct to his left too much. He played most forcefully to the assistant concertmaster and concertmaster to his immediate left. I was afraid he might put an eye out of one of them.
With the baton in the right hand, a flourish to the left is more naturally decisive, but a conductor needs to flourish to musicians on all sides equally to give The Love for Three Oranges Suite its proper love.
To give proper love: I love these guys. What a band, what a conductor, what composers. Are you kidding me? If I were in Vienna, Brussels, Eindhoven, Amsterdam, or Madrid - and, by the way, what a totally cool European tour! - I would want to see this show.
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