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Saturday, 19 October 2013 12:53

Concert review: Technicolor Tchaikovsky highlights St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall Friday and Sunday, October 18 and 20

Hannu Lintu Hannu Lintu www.hannulintu.fi
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu and Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma made triumphant returns to Powell Hall Friday night with an evening of dance-oriented music by Bartók, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky.  The highly charged "Swan Lake" suite was the highlight for me, but the fact is that the whole program was most impressive.

Let’s start with Ms. Lamsma’s performance of the Prokofiev "Violin Concerto No. 2" in G minor, op. 63.  Prokofiev wrote it in 1935, two years after he returned to his native Russia from 15 years of self-imposed exile in the West and one year before he was officially repatriated.  He was happy to return home, as the warmth of the main melody of the second movement seems to attest.  But the outer movements have a drama and drive that frankly sound a bit ominous at times. 

It's a piece that demands a high degree of virtuosity from the soloist—which it undeniably got from Ms. Lamsma. I was very much taken with her Shostakovich 1st concerto back in March of 2011, and she brought the same combination of laser-like focus and easy virtuosity to the Prokofiev 2nd this time.  This is music that requires a performer who can make the instrument sing in the second movement and toss off tricky passages in the first and third. Ms. Lamsma negotiated it all with ease. She and Mr. Lintu were clearly in close communication with each other throughout the concerto, as was obvious in the quality of the performance.

When Mr. Lintu last led the orchestra back in February I found his style on the podium to be a nearly ideal mixture of romantic intensity and intellectual rigor—fire combined with ice.  Not surprisingly, then, his "Swan Lake" suite was marked by dramatic tempo and dynamic contrasts combined with a steely control.  Great, sweeping right hand gestures that required him to hold on to the front rail of the podium for support alternated with careful shaping of phrases with the left. At one point—during the harp and violin duet in the Act II “Pas D'Action”—he stopped conducting altogether so that David Halen and harpist Allegra Lilly could simply play off each other.

It was all very dramatic and yet so much in control that Mr. Lintu was able to step off the podium to assist a first violinist who had an instrument malfunction and step back without missing a beat.

This was, in short, a 70mm, Technicolor "Swan Lake" that left Mr. Lintu looking like he'd just completed an aerobic workout.  Which, in fact, he had.  The audience awarded him and the orchestra with a much-deserved standing ovation. There was excellent solo work by (among others) cellist Danny Lee and Barbara Orland on oboe (that famous Act II theme).

The concert opened with a pretty much flawless "Dance Suite" by Bartók, written for a 1923 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the unification of the Hungarian cities Óbuda, Buda, and Pest to form the national capital Budapest.  A pioneering ethnomusicologist as well as celebrated composer and pianist, Bartók spent much of 1908 tramping through the Hungarian countryside with fellow composer Zoltán Kodály collecting Magyr folk tunes. The melodies he heard then, along with the Arabic music he picked up during a 1913 visit to Algeria, would strongly shape his compositions from then on.

Those influences are certainly evident in the suite. Like the composer's "Concerto for Orchestra," this is a piece that gives every section a workout, with complex, overlapping rhythms and spiky melodies that summon up the folk material that inspired it.  I think it could easily get a bit sloppy with a less disciplined orchestra and conductor. Not here, though. Everyone performed splendidly, with especially fine work by the double reeds (oboe, English horn, bassoon, and contrabassoon) in the opening.

That was, by the way, a kind of fitting memorial to symphony contrabassoonist Andrew Thompson who died suddenly this past Tuesday of a heart attack at the shockingly young age of 27.  Maestro David Robertson paid homage to him after intermission with a moving eulogy and a moment of silence.  And, by God, it was true and absolute silence.

The concert repeats Sunday at 3 PM. Tonight (Saturday, October 19) is the annual Red Velvet Ball fundraising gala and concert with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and David Robertson at the podium.

This coming Wednesday (October 23) there’s a Pulitzer Concert with cellist Danny Lee and violinist Helen Kim performing Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes for Solo Violin and Kodály‘s Sonata for Solo Cello at the Pulitzer Center just west of Powell Hall. Friday and Saturday it’s back to Powell Hall for a concert featuring Rimski-Korsakov’s Scheherazade along with the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 (the one with the prominent trumpet part in the final movement) and a suite of dances from Thomas Adès’s 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face. Peter Oundjian conducts with pianist Stewart Goodyear and the symphony’s Karin Bliznik on trumpet. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org.

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