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Monday, 28 October 2013 20:21

Concert review: The magic of orchestration at the St. Louis Symphony Friday and Saturday, October 25 and 26, 2013

Peter Oundjian Peter Oundjian www.harrisonparrott.com / Sian Richards
Written by Gary Liam Scott
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So how does one make the standard piano concerto format more innovative?  By adding a second solo instrument, of course.  That is precisely how Dmitry Shostakovich emboldened his Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor.  The result is a neo-classically inspired work that is at once brash and refined, carefully laid out yet unpredictable.

The scoring for solo piano, strings and a solo trumpet—and nothing more—provided an excellent showcase for the talents of two incredibly gifted performers, pianist Stewart Goodyear and newly-appointed Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik. Both performers possessed technique that is not only dazzling in its fireworks, but flawlessly measured against the intricacies of Shostakovich’s imaginative score. Like a band of eager travelers, it is as though the musicians explore an enchanted musical forest of contrasting rhythmic and melodic ideas. Bliznik’s breathtaking technique transmutes the trumpet into liquid gold; St. Louis is blessed to have such a gifted performer in our midst. Goodyear’s technique, though equally flowing—and in seemingly every direction—was executed with the precision of a well-oiled machine.

The concert was themed “The Realm of Fantasy”, but it could equally have been termed “The Magic of Orchestration”. All works featured on the program demonstrated a remarkable usage of the orchestral palette, in shades both subtle and dramatic. Guest conductor Peter Oondjian, Canadian-born and currently Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, led the St. Louis Symphony with as much confidence and insight as if it were his home orchestra. He seemed at one with the music and the musicians.

The program opened with the "Dances from Powder Her Face," a chamber opera—or perhaps in this case a cabaret opera—detailing the lascivious life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, who first began to attract notoriety during her much-publicized divorce in 1963. British composer Thomas Ades completed the opera in 1995, originally utilizing a small orchestra. He later scored the whimsical dance sequences for full symphonic orchestra. Ades’ tunes and rhythms are comic, intricate and rather slap-happy. Unlike the Shostakovich concerto, which explores the capacities of a limited number of instruments, in the Ades work all the various instruments of the large orchestra—including harp, piano, percussion, contrabassoon and brass—speak with individual and combined voices, often unexpectedly, sometimes quite softly and sometimes quite boldly.

The closing work on the program was the beloved Arabian Nights tone poem "Scheherazade" by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. To say that the composer used lush orchestration is almost an understatement. From the opening low brass fanfare to the sparkling violin solos scattered throughout, the resources of the entire orchestra unite to bring a fairy-tale scenario to life. This is a work that is best experienced live in a large concert hall; recordings can rarely do justice to such a magnificent work. Not only does every section of the orchestra make its contribution in this piece, but the full pitch range of each instrument is heard, from lowest notes to highest. A work as brilliantly conceived as this, and so ably performed, does indeed carry the listener to a new realm. The near-capacity audience at Powell Hall was quick to voice its appreciation and approval.

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