I have become quite a fan of the St. Louis Symphony's periodic "Music You Know" concerts, sponsored by the Whitaker Foundation. The series got off to a rocky start last November but quickly righted itself this past March. As David Robertson and the orchestra clearly demonstrated at this past Friday's concert, the series has settled into a very polished and pleasing groove.
A pair of threes may not be a winning hand at the casino, but it paid off handsomely at Powell Hall Friday night with virtuoso performances by the St. Louis Symphony and guest conductor Vasily Petrenko of Scriabin's "Symphony No. 3," Op. 43 (1902-04) and, with soloist Simon Trpčeski, Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor," Op. 30 (1909) .
This weekend's St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts offer a pair of threes: Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3" and Scriabin's "Symphony No. 3" ("The Divine Poem"). Both were written during the first decade of the 20th century when their creators were in their thirties. Both composers were Russian Romantics who were prodigious pianists. And both made significant contributions to the literature for both piano and orchestra.
The young (late 30s) Slovenian conductor Juraj Valcuha came to town for his SLSO debut this weekend with a stack of impressive reviews from locations as diverse as London, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Brahms to Szymanowski. Critics have praised his big sound, his precision, and what the Los Angeles Times critic called "his eloquent and flowing baton gestures."
Works by two giants of the Russian romantic school are on the Powell Hall Stage this week as the St. Louis Symphony under guest conductor Juraj Valcuha takes on Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" in C Minor, Op. 18 (first performed in 1901) with famed pianist André Watts as soloist and Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6" in B minor, Op. 74 (a.k.a. the "Pathetique"), which had its first performance only eight years earlier.
"Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful." So runs Sammy Cahn's lyric for the 1945 holiday favorite "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" Substitute "music" for "fire" and you have a good summary of this weekend's symphony concerts.
This weekend at the symphony, BBC Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena is on the podium for a series of variations on the theme of the theme and variations. Which is not as confusing as it looks. All three of the works on the program are examples of the "theme and variations" form, in which a single melodic thread is used to spin a complex tapestry of music.
For over 200 years audiences have been captivated by the piano, and with good reason. A skilled performer can transform the instrument into a veritable orchestral palette of color, range, special effects and dynamics. Such was the case with the brilliant Chinese-born pianist Wuna Meng, a 2012 competition winner of the Artist Presentation Society, who performed on March 17 at the Ethical Society.
Powell Hall was packed to the last row of the balcony Saturday night for a coruscating Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough (who had just performed the First Concerto the night before) earning a Purple Heart at the keyboard and a driving Beethoven 5th with Peter Oundjian at the podium.
Rachmaninoff’s Second may not be the best of his four piano concerti—both the revised First and (my favorite) the Third are more economical and generate more momentum—but it’s unquestionably his most popular.