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Sunday, 02 March 2014 12:53

Concert review: Dramatic themes and variations with Juanjo Mena and the symphony Friday through Sunday, February 28-March 2 + Video

Pianist Benedetto Lupo Pianist Benedetto Lupo dispeker.com / Carlo Cofano
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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"Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful." So runs Sammy Cahn's lyric for the 1945 holiday favorite "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" Substitute "music" for "fire" and you have a good summary of this weekend's symphony concerts.

[Want to know more about the music?  Check out the symphony program notes and my Symphony Preview article.]

Making his SLSO debut, Juanjo Mena is on the podium for a virtuoso reading of Ginastera's "Variaciones concertantes" that showcased many of our fine principal players (including Erik Harris on bass, which is not an instrument that gets a lot of solos normally), a blazing Rachmaninoff "Paganini Variations" with Benedetto Lupo tearing up the keyboard, and lushly romantic performance of Elgar's "Enigma Variations."

As you might gather from the preceding paragraph, the unifying concept this weekend is the durability and variety of the "theme and variations" format. The form has been a favorite of composers for centuries, from the Renaissance right up to the present day. The three examples on this weekend's program are all by composers who wrote in the 20th century and cover a span of over fifty years, from 1898 to 1953.

The most recent work is the one that opens the concerts, the "Variaciones concertantes," op. 23 by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. Originally composed for chamber ensemble, it's being performed here with an expanded string section (fifty players) that turns it into a work for full orchestra. It takes the conventional theme and variations form and combines it with a concept that emerged mainly in the 20th century, the "concerto for orchestra"—a work in which each section of the ensemble gets an opportunity to take the spotlight.

That gave a dozen of the orchestra's principal players a chance to demonstrate, as all the symphony's musicians have so often in the past, that this is an ensemble of virtuosi. Bear with me as I try to give all of them the credit they deserve.

The main theme was first played softly and with great feeling by Principal Harp Allegra Lilly and Principal Cello Daniel Lee. An interludio for the strings led to the giocosa ("playful") variation for flute—played with stunning virtuosity by Associate Principal Andrea Kaplan—followed by an equally impressive performance of the variation in modo di Scherzo by Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews. Next was the drammatica variation for viola, delivered with wonderful intensity by Principal Beth Guterman Chu; the canonica variation, hauntingly rendered by Acting Co-Principal Oboe Barbara Orland and Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo; and the brief but striking ritmica variation (actually more of a fanfare) for trumpet and trombone (Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik, Associate Principal Trumpet Tom Drake, and Principal Trombone Tim Meyers). That led to what is probably the most difficult variation of the lot, the Moto perpetuo variation for violin, dashed off with deceptive ease by Concertmaster David Halen.

A lovely pastorale variation by Principal Horn Roger Kaza was folllowed by a chorale interlude from the wind section, which was followed in turn by a restatement of the main theme by harp and string bass (a wonderfully delicate performance from Principal Erik Harris). It all wrapped up with a lively finale in modo di Rondo based on the malambo, a dance form that originated with Argentine gauchos and which crops up in other works by Ginastera—most notably as the finale of his 1941 ballet Estancia.

Mr. Mena conducted all this with an animated, loose-limbed, and rather sinuous grace, almost dancing his way through the final variation. Here, as in the program as a whole, his tempo and dynamics choices showed a flair for the dramatic that was well suited to the material.

Next was one of the great virtuoso showpieces of the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff’s flashy "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" from 1934. The Russian expatriate was one of the previous century’s great virtuoso pianists and the "Rhapsody" served him well as he toured America and Europe. The piece is a sort of mini-concerto, consisting of 24 variations on (appropriately) the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's "Caprices" for solo violin—a tune that has proved irresistible for composers from Liszt to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The soloist for the Rachmaninoff was Benedetto Lupo, making his second appearance with the symphony. When he was competing in the final round of the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition (in which he took the bronze medal), Lupo was described by critic Joseph Horowitz as a performer whose "musicianship, taste, and tenderness make him impossible not to like." I'd add that he also has a powerful technique that served him well Friday night in Mr. Mena's dynamic and sometimes hair raisingly brisk approach to this piece. The introduction and final six variations—difficult enough at any tempo—were especially speedy, which made Mr. Lupo's performance all the more impressive.

That's not to say he lacked delicacy and lyricism when it was called for. The famous 18th variation (often presented alone on "greatest hits" discs and classical radio stations) was as warm and romantic as one would wish. This was, in short, a totally engrossing performance, delivered with minimum of flash and maximum of musicianship.

The evening concluded with a work that could probably be classed as one of Edward Elgar’s greatest hits, the “Enigma Variations” from 1989-99. Effectively a musical family album, the fourteen variations are vivid and varied little sound portraits of Elgar, his wife, and his friends. They're filled with humorous touches (like the portrait of a swimming bulldog in variation 11) and fascinating instrumental details. My favorite example of the latter is variation 13, dedicated to an unnamed lady friend on a sea voyage, in which the solo clarinet (Associate Principal Diana Haskell) playes a phrase from Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" over an eerie pianissimo roll played on the tympani with wooden side drum sticks (nicely done by Shannon Wood). Elgar meant the sound to suggest "the distant throb of engines of a liner."

Here, again, Mr. Mena made the most of this score's many moods. Tempo contrasts were marked—the first variation felt a bit slower than the score's Andante, for example—but not exaggerated, and orchestral details were nicely highlighted. His approach to the famous "Nimrod" variation (often heard as a stand-alone work, like the Rachmaninoff 18th) was particularly passionate—very appropriate for a musical portrait of August Jaegar, a champion of Elgar's music and a close, beloved friend. The orchestra played with its customary virtuosity. The performance was, overall, a thing of beauty.

The concert repeats Sunday at 3 PM at Powell Hall in Grand Center.  Next week, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is on the podium to conduct the orchestra and chorus in Verdi's "Requiem" with soloists Angel Blue (soprano), Julia Gertseva (mezzo-soprano), Aquiles Machado (tenor), and Riccardo Zanellato (bass). The concerts are Friday and Saturday, January 24 and 25, at 8 PM. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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