If there were any nightmares around Powell Hall earlier this week when scheduled pianist Markus Groh fell ill, they have surely turned into sweet dreams now that his replacement, 18-year-old prodigy Conrad Tao, has delivered a bang-up performance of Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3”. This is the music of youth—Prokofiev was only a few years older than Mr. Tao when he started writing it—with ample wit, nose-thumbing cheer, and some ridiculously difficult writing for the soloist, especially in the final movement. Mr. Tao and guest conductor Hannu Lintu did full justice to the vital energy of Prokofiev’s score and were rewarded with spontaneous applause after the first movement and a thunderous ovation after the last.
But Mr. Tao wasn’t finished. After multiple bows, he returned with an encore: Liszt’s equally thorny “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6,” delivered all the fire one could wish for. This was Mr. Tao’s debut with the orchestra and it could not have gone better. He’s a tremendously talented young man (and a fellow Midwesterner, hailing from Urbana, Illinois) at the beginning of what looks like a very promising career.
The orchestra was in excellent form as well. Scott Andrews gets a nod for his fine clarinet solo in the first movement, of course, but fine playing was the order of the day everywhere.
Bracketing the Prokofiev was a pair of deeply felt performances of music of Mr. Lintu’s countryman, Jean Sibelius.
The concert opened with a “Finlandia” that was one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen, with slow but majestic treatment of the famous “Finlandia Hymn” (now one of Finland’s most popular national songs) and an expansive finale. In this, as in the Sibelius “Symphony No. 5” that closed the program, Mr. Lintu was a commanding and visually compelling figure on the podium. His big gestures were striking—at one point in “Finlandia,” for example, he held the baton with both hands and swept it down from overhead to signal a Really Dramatic Moment. But he also coaxed delicate sounds with a minimum of physical display. His interpretations were, in short, a nearly ideal mixture of romantic intensity and intellectual control—fire combined with ice.
Sibelius’s 5th symphony is a combination of fire and ice as well. It covers a vast range of emotional territory, from the first movement’s unearthly bassoon lament (beautifully played by Principal Andrew Cuneo) over ghostly ppp strings to the grand sweep in the final movement of the “swan theme”—so called because Sibelius wrote it after witnessing a flight of sixteen swans, which he described as “one of the greatest experiences of my life… Nature’s mystery and life’s melancholy.”
From 1892 until his death in 1957, Sibelius lived and worked in a home made entirely of wood (he didn’t want to hear the sound of rain in metal gutters) on Lake Tuusula in the Finnish forest, where he often went for long walks. The love of nature informs every bar of the 5th. It’s impossible to hear this music and not conjure up images of pines, snow, and brisk northern winds.
Mr. Lintu and the orchestra brought out all of the mystery and wildness in this remarkable score. The opening of the first movement sounded a little bit scrappy in places on Friday night, but the finale, with that sweeping final statement of the swan theme and those final six chords separated by just enough silence, had all the power and majesty you’d want. It was, altogether, a potent experience.
Mr. Lintu last conducted the orchestra in November of 2012. Let’s hope he returns to us again soon.
Next on the calendar: David Robertson returns to the podium to conduct Strauss’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” Brahms’s “Symphony No. 2,” and Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4.” Radu Lupu is the soloist. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3, February 7-9. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org