It was damp and gloomy outside Friday night (April 28) but inside Powell Hall it was all light and cheer as David Robertson conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a festive romp through the last of the Whitaker Foundation's "Music You Know" concerts.
Launched back in November 2014, the "Music You Know" series features familiar classics often mixed with new but highly approachable works. This edition followed the same pattern, but with one charming wrinkle: the first music heard Friday night—the "Sword Dance" from Arbeau's Orchésographie, in a simplified arrangement by Bob Phillips—was played not by the SLSO but by one of the participants in the Symphony in Your School program: the Jennings Jr. High School string orchestra, conducted by their director, James McKay. Preceded by a video in which Mr. McKay, some of the players, and the ensemble's SLSO mentors reflected on the joy of their shared experience, the brief piece was an inspiring beginning to a highly enjoyable evening.
The SLSO part of the program began with a performance of the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz that emphasized the work's dark and dramatic themes while still delivering an appropriate rousing finale. An unfortunate moment in the first entrance by the horns not withstanding, it was well played, with fine individual contributions, like the clarinet solo leading into the first statement of the big second theme.
Next up was a the premiere of The Arch, a concerto written for SLSO bass trombonist Gerard Pagano by James Stephenson and inspired by the Gateway Arch. Accompanied by a series of slides showing the construction of the arch, this listener-friendly work was a reminder of a time when America was brimming with courageous postwar optimism. The contrast with our current climate of paranoia and pessimism was both stark and sad. Mr. Pagano's performance was inspirational, though, and earned him a standing ovation.
The first half of the concert concluded with one of my favorite marches, William Walton's Crown Imperial. Intended for the coronation of Edward VIII—who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson before the ceremony could take place—it was finally played to mark the ascension of George VI. It's a certified rouser, with a broad, noble second theme and an inspiring finale. Mr. Robertson and the orchestra gave it an appropriately powerful reading, with an especially high-gloss treatment of that second theme.
The second half of the program opened with a leisurely stroll through Mendelssohn's 1830 musical postcard from Scotland, the Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) Overture. This is vividly evocative music, and while Mr. Robertson's more relaxed treatment didn't always deliver that sense of the wild, storm-tossed Scottish coast, it did feature some exemplary playing, including Scott Andrews and Tina Ward in the important clarinet parts. And Mr. Robertson's approach certainly brought out the strong dramatic contrasts in the score.
A beautifully delicate performance of Debussy's Clair de lune (in the popular André Caplet orchestration) was next, featuring Allegra Lilly's gossamer harp, followed by a real rarity: an orchestration of the 1964 Nocturno for horn and piano by Franz Strauss, father of the celebrated composer Richard. A virtuoso player in his own right, Franz (as Mr. Robertson pointed out in his prefatory remarks) showed Richard what the instrument was capable of—which explains the very challenging horn writing in so many of the younger Strauss's works. The SLSO's own Julie Thayer was the soloist, in a performance that was the auditory equivalent of liquid gold.
The concerts concluded with a bold and fiery run through another musical souvenir, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien. Written during a visit to Rome in the winter and spring of 1880, the Capriccio shows the composer in an exuberant and dramatic mood. From the opening fanfare (inspired by the bugle calls from the nearby military barracks that woke the composer up every morning), to the irresistible tunes informed by Italian folk songs, to the rousing and dramatic coda, this is the kind of stuff that inevitably brings an audience to its feet—which it certainly did Friday night.
“Tchaikovsky knows what the instruments can do in a virtuoso way," observed conductor JoAnn Falletta in program notes for a 2011 Virginia Symphony performance of the Capriccio. "He brings them to their limit in the most thrilling fashion." And "thrilling" is exactly what Friday night's performance was, with exceptional playing from everyone and a perfectly shaped interpretation from Mr. Robertson. It was an immensely pleasing way to end the evening and the current "Music You Know" series.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and vocal soloists in a concert version of Richard Wagner's opera Der Fliegende Holländer better known in English as The Flying Dutchman, with projected visuals by S. Katy Tucker. Performances are Thursday and Saturday, May 4 and 6, at 8 p.m. at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.