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Sunday, 22 April 2012 15:07

Concert review: Little Russia and big Dvorak with Daniel Lee and the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall April 20-22

Concert review: Little Russia and big Dvorak with Daniel Lee and the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall April 20-22 chambermusiciantoday.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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If St. Louis Symphony Principal Cello Daniel Lee isn’t feeling extraordinarily pleased with himself right now, it must mean that his virtuosity is exceed only by his modesty.

Certainly the spontaneous applause that burst forth after the first movement of the Dvořák “Cello Concerto” and the standing ovation at the end are the sorts of things guaranteed to gladden the heart and increase the self-esteem of any performer.

For that matter, Peter Oundjian can feel pretty proud of his impassioned reading of Smetana’s “Šárka”from “Má vlast” and a snappy Tchaikovsky “Symphony No. 2 (Little Russian)”. It all made for an entertaining evening of late-19th century music with, to quote symphony program annotator Laurie Shulman, “an emphasis on native rhythms, harmonies, and melodies composed at a great distance from the music capitals of London, Paris, and Vienna.”

The cello doesn’t appear in the symphonic spotlight that often. It’s not that there aren’t concerti out there (although far fewer than for violin or piano), it’s just that most of them are relatively obscure. The Dvořák A minor concerto is probably the most popular—right up there with the Elgar—and justifiably so. Written during the composer’s final year in America, it’s a mature and deeply felt work of genuinely symphonic proportions. It’s also technically challenging without being superficially flashy. There are no cadenzas, for example, and the demands on the soloist’s technique arise naturally out of the concerto’s dramatic narrative.

To play this concerto well, then, you need not only nimble hands but also a warm heart. This is music of deep sorrow and overflowing joy. The soloist had better be open to all of it.

Mr. Lee has all that and then some. Sure, his performance on Friday night was technically proficient. But more importantly it was emotionally genuine. You could see the play of Dvořák’s feelings echoed on his face and in his body. He was, as we say in the theatre, completely in the moment and in tune with not only the music but with his fellow players as well. I have always loved this concerto, and Mr. Lee’s exemplary performance reminded me why.

The concert began and ended with a pair of virtuoso orchestral works. The opener, Smetana’s “Šárka”, is perhaps an unusual choice. It’s based on an incident from the legendary twelfth-century “Maiden’s War” in which the titular heroine seduces the warrior Ctirad and then, with the help of her fellow Amazons, slaughters him and his men in their sleep. Smetana’s tone painting is fairly literal (even including a snoring bassoon as the men fall asleep) and concludes with a particularly violent orchestral outburst. Mr. Oundjian’s interpretation made the most of the composer’s dynamic contrasts, with an especially hair-raising coda. I’d love to hear him tackle the entire “Má vlast”.

The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 2”, nicknamed the “Little Russian” for its use of folk material from the Ukraine (a.k.a. “Little Russia”). Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies don’t get nearly the respect they deserve, in my view, so it was delightful to hear this one at Powell Hall for the first time in nearly twenty years.

The symphony abounds in flashy writing, especially for the winds, and the orchestra’s players were more than up to the task. Even Mr. Oundjian’s breakneck pace in the finale posed no challenge. Everything, including the cheerful little piccolo solo, came through with perfect clarity.

Mr. Oundjian, as I have noted in the past, appears to run a tight musical ship. His podium style is less aerobic than Mr. Robertson’s and more traditional in approach, with the right hand mostly keeping time with the baton and the left cueing soloists and shaping dynamics. The dynamic contrasts he shapes can be extreme, but to my ears they always make sense and serve the music well. He appears to have an excellent rapport with the musicians, which may be one of the reasons he has appeared so often here—and will be returning May 4 and 5.

Next at Powell Hall: The much-heralded “Rach Fest” Friday through Sunday, April 27-29, with Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” (Friday morning at 10:30) and “Piano Concerto No. 2” (Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3) along with Shostakovich’s youthful “Symphony No. 1” and Rimski-Korsakov’s Op. 29 “Skazka” (“Fairy Tale”). Hans Graf is at the podium with Stephen Hough at the keyboard. For more information you may call 314-534-1700 or visit stlsymphony.org.

[Download the complete St. Louis symphony program notes in PDF format]

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