From the lively presto 16th-note figure in the strings that opens the overture to von Weber's 1811 singspiel "Abu Hassan" at the top of the program to the rousing brass and percussion coda of Haydn's "Symphony No. 100" in G major (known as the "military" because of all that hardware) at the end, this was a concert that radiated joy. Mr. McGegan and the players were having such a good time it was impossible not to enter into the spirit of the thing.
"Intimations of exotic locales and cultures," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes, "particularly those considered the orient, constitute a distinctive and especially colorful strand in Western music." These concerts, in fact, offer a window onto the pervasive fascination with the cultures of the near east in general and Turkey in particular that pops up often in 17th and 18th century music.
The reasons for that fascination are partly political. Austria and Turkey (a.k.a. the Ottoman Empire) were at war on and off from the around 1526 until almost the end of the 18th century, when the 1797 Treaty of Sistova left both nations in sufficient disarray to discourage any more military adventures. In Europe and (especially) Austria, therefore, all things Turkish and Middle Eastern were seen as exotic and not a little dangerous—which naturally made them interesting to composers and other creative types.
The "Abu Hassan" overture, then, was a perfect choice for an opener. The one-act farce for which it was written (Lewis Foreman of the University of Birmingham calls it a "vigorous romp with a Fedeauesque sub-plot") doesn't get performed much these days, but the overture is a tune-filled favorite. Mr. McGegan and the orchestra gave an appropriately lean and lively account of it.
Conducting without a baton throughout the concert, Mr. McGegan artfully shaped phrases and cued musicians with his hands and fingers, molding the music like modeling clay. He's a strong physical presence on the podium, making particularly expressive use of his upper body. He's not the dancer some visceral conductors are, staying more or less in one spot, but he vibrates with energy nevertheless. And, as I say, he just radiates infectious good cheer.
Following the Weber was Mozart's "Violin Concerto No. 5" in A major, K. 219 (from 1775). The first two movements aren't particularly exotic, although the Adagio second movement is longer and does have a more elaborate orchestral introduction than any of Mozart's other violin concertos. It's the third movement Rondeau, however, that has caused some writers to dub it the "Turkish" concerto. In the middle section, Mozart changes the time signature to 2/4 and uses some exotic melodic effects, including having cellos and basses slap their strings with the wood of the bow (Mozart calls it "coll'arco roverscio"). To my ears is sounds more Gypsy than Turkish, but back in the day it yelled "Ottoman".
Soloist Stefan Jackiw—a much-praised young American violinist making his SLSO debut—took a rather lyrical approach to the work, starting with his first entrance in the opening movement. It's marked "adagio" in the score, but here it felt a bit slower and more expressive than I would have expected. His first-movement cadenza, as well, was a fascinating combination of lyricism and virtuoso display. It all added up to an almost Romantic slant to the piece—and one for which he and Mr. McGegan made a most persuasive case.
The audience apparently agreed, offering enthusiastic applause. Mr. Jackiw responded with an encore: a deeply felt "Largo" from Bach's "Sonata for solo violin No. 3" in C major, BWV 1005.
After intermission, it was a step back in time to 1735-36 with a suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau's opéra-ballet "Les Indes Galantes" ("The Gallant Indians"). The opéra-ballet was a kind of musical theatre hybrid popular in late 17th and early 18th century France in which dance was prominent. It consisted of a prologue followed by three or four semi-independent acts united by a common theme. For "Les Indes Galantes," the theme is romantic triangles in such exotic locales as Turkey, Peru, Persia, and, in a fourth act added for the 1736 revival, America ("Les Sauvages," "The Savages of America").
The nine selections assembled for this concert offered a nice balance of airs and dances and presented plenty of opportunities for individual players to shine. That included the oboes (Phil Ross and Michelle Duskey) and bassoons (Andy Gott and Felicia Foland) in the "Air pour les Amours," flautists Andrea Kaplan and Ann Choomack in the "Prélude pour l'adoration du Soleil," concertmaster David Halen and Ms. Kaplan in the "Airs pour Zéphire," and principal trumpet Karin Bliznik in the concluding "Chaconne." Maryse Carlin provided the fine harpsichord continuo.
The concert concluded with a wonderfully entertaining performance of Haydn's "Symphony No. 100 in G major," dubbed the "military" because the use of brass, timpani, and triangle in both the second movement and finale recalled the noisy percussion of the Janissary bands of the Turkish military. The effect is striking, even to modern ears—especially when performed with the kind of finesse it got Friday morning.
Back in Haydn's day it was apparently electrifying. According to a Morning Chronicle review of the March 31, 1795 premiere in London (where all of Haydn's last twelve symphonies were first performed), "the middle movement was again received with absolute shouts of applause. Encore! encore! encore! resounded from every seat".
The audience at Powell didn't demand encores, but they did give Mr. McGegan and company a standing ovation. They deserved it. There were so many wonderful touches in this performance: the sense of fun in the interplay between the winds and strings in the main theme of the first movement, the power of the dramatic interjections of the percussion in the second, and the wonderful lightness and precision of the 6/8 finale. This was "big band" Haydn with the fleet-footed sensibility of "original instrument" ensembles. I loved it, and I wasn't alone.
The concert repeats Saturday night (November 9) at 8 PM at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and streaming from the station web site. But, as with all symphony concerts, you have to be there live to really get the full impact. For more information: stlsymphony.org.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson leads the orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a concert performance of Benjamin Britten's opera "Peter Grimes" on Saturday, November 16, at 8 PM. It's a preview of the performance they'll be giving of the work at Carnegie Hall on Britten's 100th birthday on November 22nd. That'll be followed by "Symphony SLAM" on Sunday the 17th at 3 PM. The SLSO web site describes that as "a true fusion between visual art and music" in which music director David Robertson "pairs images of some of the Saint Louis Art Museum's beloved treasures with music from Britten and Bartók."