Under the expert baton of early music specialist Bernard Labadie, the concerts show just how much variety there can be in a relatively small span of time.
The concerts open with a lively suite of dances from Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1763 tragédie en musique "Les Boréades". Rameau was in the final year of his long and productive life when he wrote it (he died in 1764 at the age of 81), so he never saw it performed. No surprise there. What is surprising, as Mr. Labadie points out in his fascinating pre-concert remarks, is that due in part to legal issues over the performance rights, nobody else got to see it either for well over two centuries. Happily, the issues were resolved a decade ago, allowing audiences to enjoy Rameau's tuneful and inventive score.
The suite got a crisp and polished reading from Mr. Labadie and the orchestra. The fanciful "Gavottes pour les heures" was especially fun, with Andrea Kaplan and Ann Choomack on piccolo joining Andrew Cuneo and Henry Skolnick on bassoon (the latter at the very top of their registers) to perfectly conjure up whirling clockwork. The suite is short—two of the dances listed in the program were cut, presumably because of the length of the concert overall—but nicely chosen and thoroughly entertaining.
Up next was Haydn's "Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major," Hob. I:105. A Classical-era revision of the Baroque concerto grosso, works in the sinfonia concertante mold featured an ensemble of solo players with orchestra instead of the single soloist that would later characterize the concerto form. In this case it's a solo quartet: violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon.
It's the "newest" piece on the program, dating from 1792 and written for the composer's first trip to London, where he was embraced with open arms and open purses as well. A contemporary review raved about it, saying that it "combined with all the excellencies of music" and was "was profound, airy, affecting, and original." That's as good a description as any of this consistently engaging work, with its clear and concise structure (it clocks in at 22 minutes) and Haydn's characteristic good humor.
That good humor is especially apparent in the final movement, in which the violin has to restate the main theme three times before the orchestra "gets it." Symphony annotator Paul Schiavo sees it as a humorous portrayal of a music lesson, although to me it sounded more like an operatic recitative followed by an aria. Either way, the violin and cello get in the last word, with short flourishes at the very tops of their registers just before the final chords.
The solo quartet consists entirely members of the home team: Acting Co-Principal oboe Philip Ross, Associate Principal bassoon Andrew Gott, Associate Principal Second Violin Kirstin Ahlstrom, and Associate Principal cello Melissa Brooks. It's always good to see the local folks in the spotlight, especially when they play with such seemingly effortless grace. Their sound was perfectly balanced, both within the solo group and against the orchestra.
The second half of the concert features symphonies by the two giants of the Classical period, Haydn and Mozart. We begin with Haydn's 1764 "Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major." It's nicknamed "The Philosopher" for any number of reasons, depending on whom you ask. In his post-intermission commentary, Mr. Labadie opined that it refers to the way the dialog between the horns and English horns (the darker-toned cousins of the oboe) in the stately first movement imitates the Socratic "question and answer" style of teaching. To me, the entire movement has always conjured up the image of a thoughtful academic carefully laying out a mathematical proof or explaining a complex philosophical issue. Your mileage may vary.
Here, as in the rest of the program, Mr. Labadie drew fine performances from the orchestra, with tempi that felt historically right. The dialog between horns Thomas Jöstlein and Anna Spina and English horns Cally Banham and Michelle Duskey was right on the money and the third movement Menuetto had a "folk dance" feel that was, I expect, very much what Haydn had in mind.
The final work on the program—Mozart's "Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major," K. 543—is the first of a set of three that the composer dashed off in a burst of creativity in the summer of 1788. It gets less attention than the other two, much as a normal human being would be less noticed standing next to a pair of NFL linebackers, but that doesn't make it any less a great composition, neatly melding Baroque counterpoint with Classical clarity.
Mr. Labadie conducted without a score, so it's obviously a work he knows intimately. He gave it a lean, energetic reading that made the most of the work's drama (especially in the Andante con moto second movement) without tipping over into exaggeration. The little Alpine waltz of the Menuetto: Allegretto third movement was most charming as well, lovingly rendered by Scott Andrews and Tim Zavadil on clarinets and answered by Andrea Kaplan on flute.
The concerts repeat today (Saturday) at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, February 22 and 23. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio 90.7 and HD 1.
Next on the schedule: On Wednesday, February 26, at 7:30 PM David Robertson conducts members of the orchestra in a program of music by Steve Reich in a Pulitzer Series concert at the Pulitzer Center for the Arts, 3716 Washington. Then Juanjo Mena conducts the orchestra with piano soloist Benedetto Lupo in a program of music by Ginastera, Rachmaninoff, and Elgar on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, February 28 – March 2, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org.