The concerts open with the overture to the 1823 opera "Euryanthe" by that younger contemporary of Beethoven, Carl Maria von Weber. Unlike Weber's "Der Freischütz," "Euryanthe" has never found a place in the active repertoire, probably because (as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes) the libretto by German journalist, poet, and playwright Helmina von Chézy (once described by Mahler as a "poetess with a full heart and an empty head") "was an incompetent botch." Still, the overture is a real crowd pleaser, with engaging themes, plenty of dramatic contrast, and a rousing finale.
Here, as in the rest of the program, Mr. Orozco-Estrada made the most of those contrasts—part of that aforementioned echt Romantic approach. The "ghost" theme was (you should pardon the expression) haunting and the fugato run-up to the finale was nicely articulated. Mr. Orozco-Estrada was an exuberant and very physically demonstrative figure on the podium, with big but crisp gestures suggesting a good balance of emotional involvement and intellectual control.
This week's Beethoven is the "Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major," op. 73 (a.k.a. the "Emperor"), a work which bristles with nobility and grace despite being written under the cloud of war and occupation. When Beethoven was writing the concerto in Vienna in 1809, the city was under heavy siege by Napoleon. "[L]ife around me", he wrote, "is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort." You can even hear a bit of that bombardment, I think, in the heavy piano chords that show up early in the development section of the first movement just as you can hear a kind of impassioned yearning for peace in the wistful second. It's a work of inescapable emotional power.
Soloist Louis Lortie channeled all that power beautifully. This was a very visceral performance; Mr. Lortie truly threw himself into the music, with every emotion etched on his face and visible in his body language. Like Mr. Orozco-Estrada, Mr. Lortie gave us a nearly perfect combination of head and heart. Between them, we got a powerfully noble first movement, a transcendent second and, after that wonderfully suspenseful transition, a completely engaging finale.
This sort of big, colorful, high-wattage reading might not work for some of the earlier Beethoven concerti, but for the Fifth I think it's very valid. The piano part, in particular, seems to cry out for the fuller tone and wider range of the modern, metal frame concert grand—a type of piano that wouldn't be perfected until shortly before the composer's death. Mr. Lortie's muscular approach couldn't have been a better fit.
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was a great admirer of Beethoven, so it seems only right that this weekend's concerts should conclude with what may be Bartók's most famous work, the 1943 "Concerto for Orchestra." Written, like the "Emperor" concerto, at a time of great personal travail, the "Concerto" is nevertheless a dramatic, appealing, and sometimes even humorous work. Indeed, as Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, Bartók, although impoverished and suffering from leukemia, declared that the commission to compose this work was "the wonder drug I needed to bring about my own cure."
And it really is a wonder. The "Concerto" provides an opportunity for the members of the symphony to show off, either individually or in small groups—and on Friday morning they did it beautifully. If I were to list everyone who managed to "shine with a virtue resplendent" this morning, I'd just be listing all the principal and assistant principal players in each section, which might make for tedious reading. So I'll merely note that, once again, the St. Louis Symphony lived up to its reputation as an ensemble of virtuosi. Mr. Orozco-Estrada gave all the featured musicians a chance to stand and receive their applause at the end, which they fully earned.
For his part, Mr. Orozco-Estrada gave Bartók the widescreen, Technicolor treatment the "Concerto" deserves. The little dance of the second movement "Giuoco delle coppie" ("The Game of Pairs," featuring a series a duets) was appropriately jaunty; the interjection, in the third movement "Intermezzo interotto" ("Interrupted Intermezzo"), of a theme from the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony (which Bartók heard in a live broadcast while composing the "Concerto") was thoroughly cheeky; and the finale was charged with wild energy. Lively and completely captivating stuff it was, and a welcome antidote to a chilly and blustery winter morning.
The concert repeats Saturday night at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday 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.
Next at Powel Hall: David Robertson continues the "Beethoven Festival" with the "Symphony No. 3" (the "Eroica") along "Testament" and a "Viola Concerto" by contemporary composer/violist Brett Dean. Mr. Dean will be the soloist for his concerto. The concerts are Friday and Saturday, January 24 and 25, at 8 PM. For more information: stlsymphony.org.