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Sunday, 25 November 2012 16:37

Concert review: Good humor and camaraderie with violinist Gil Shaham and the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall, Friday through Sunday, November 23-25

Concert review: Good humor and camaraderie with violinist Gil Shaham and the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall, Friday through Sunday, November 23-25 opus3artists.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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When Gil Shaham stopped to tune his violin after the massive workout that is the first movement of the Beethoven concerto his brother-in-law, maestro David Robertson, turned to the audience and quipped, "it's from 1699; you’d think it would be in tune by now." That one little moment was a distillation of the easy good humor that characterized not only the concerto but the Haydn "Symphony No. 104" and the Strauss "Tales from the Vienna Woods" as well.

The fact that the Strauss was performed with the original zither solos at the beginning and end (gracefully done by Kurt von Eckroth) was just icing on the torte.

Like many of the great 19th century composers, Beethoven wrote only one concerto for the violin, but it’s a corker. He was, unfortunately, so tardy in completing it that the soloist at the work’s 1806 premiere, Franz Clement (for whom Beethoven had written the piece) had no time to rehearse and reportedly sight read the thorny solo part. Not surprisingly, the premiere was a flop (despite a showy encore in which Mr. Clement played the violin upside-down) and the concerto didn’t begin to enter the standard repertoire until nearly two decades after the composer’s death.

Now, of course, it’s recognized as a masterful blend of solo showpiece and symphonic statement, with a substantial first movement that accounts for over half of the concerto’s 45-minute running time, a mostly serene second, and a cheerfully flashy third. Mr. Shaham’s performance was technically flawless (with a spectacular run through the cadenza Fritz Kreisler wrote for the first movement) and deeply felt, as was Mr. Robertson’s conducting. The transition from the Larghetto to the concluding Rondo was especially dramatic, and the cheerful camaraderie between Mr. Shaham and Mr. Robertson in the finale was a joy to behold. Few things are more gratifying that seeing artists taking delight in their work.

The other big work on the program was Haydn’s 104th and final symphony, usually referred to as the "London", since it was the last of a series of twelve he wrote for his visit to the English capitol. First performed at the Haymarket Theatre on May 4th, 1795, it was a huge hit with critics and public alike. "The whole company was extremely pleased, and so was I," Haydn wrote in his journal, and then noted "I made four thousand guilders this evening." He was nothing if not practical.

The symphony is classic Haydn: structurally straightforward, melodically inventive, and filled with good humor. The finale, with its drone base and cheerful central theme (based on the first strain of the Croatian folk song "Oj, Jelena, Jelena") is especially irresistible. Mr. Robertson’s tempi were a bit on the slow side for my taste, but his interpretation was nevertheless wonderfully precise and winning, and the orchestra played beautifully.

The concert opened with one of the greatest hits of Johann Strauss, Jr., "Tales from the Vienna Woods". It was one of six waltzes for which the composer wrote a solo part for the zither, an instrument which, while common enough in Strauss’s Vienna, is a bit harder to find in contemporary America. Happily, the symphony found Mr. von Eckroth, so we got to hear the work as the composer intended.

Or almost as he intended, anyway. Strauss probably didn’t have quite as large a band to work with as Mr. Robertson does and I expect that Mr. Robertson’s tempi might have given dancers pause. They worked very well in a concert setting, though. The result really did feel more like a miniature symphonic poem than a simple dance piece and made for a happy opening to a concert that overflowed with good cheer.

Next on the calendar: David Robertson welcomes pianist Kirill Gerstein (last seen here in a bravura reading of Shostakovich’s "Piano Concerto No. 2" last January) for the St. Louis premiere of Thomas Adès’ "In Seven Days" along with Richard Strauss’s "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks" and Hindemith’s "'Matis der Mahler' Symphony". Performances are Friday at 10:30 AM (a Coffee Concert with free Krispy Kreme doughnuts) and Saturday at 8, November 30 and December 1. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org

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