Conductor Cristian Macelaru

War may be, as the classic songs says, good for absolutely nothing, but opposition to it has certainly inspired some great music, as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra program this past weekend (March 10 and 11, 2018) demonstrated.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

Guest conductor Cristian Macelaru led the SLSO in two works inspired by the horrors of World War I--Benjamin Benjamin Britten's 1940 "Sinfonia da Requiem" and Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Symphony No. 4" from 1931. Also on the program was the "Violin Concerto No. 3," one of several works Camille Saint Saëns wrote as part of a nationalist response to France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

The Britten work opened Saturday night's concert with, literally, a bang on the tympani and bass drum. It's the beginning of the ominous tread of the death march that makes up the first movement (titled "Lacrymosa") of the "Sinfonia." Mr. Macelaru placed the percussion section on a platform at the back of the orchestra, which gave added power to their sound. He took that movement a bit on the slow side, which made the contrast with the skittering "Dies Irae" that followed that much more stark. The brass attacks were impressively crisp in the second movement and the concluding "Requiem aeternam," with its majestic plea for peace in the form of a noble and tranquil melody in the strings, had great power. It was, in short, a moving performance of a work that Britten (quoted in an April 27, 1940, piece in the New York Sun) said was intended to be "just as anti-war as possible."

The Vaughan Williams symphony that closed the concert is also fiercely anti-war, but whereas Britten's "Sinfonia" ends with peace, the Vaughan Williams is angry to the very end, expressing the composer's disgust with a world that had not only failed to learn the lessons of the First World War, but was determined to repeat the process.

From the harsh, dissonant opening--cribbed, as the composer would later admit, from the opening of the final movement of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9"--to the complex fugal march of the finale, this is angry and ultimately nihilistic music. There's a kind of majestic horror to the piece, rather like a Shakespearean tragedy boiled down to its essence, and Mr. Macelaru's intensely committed performance brought out every bit of its drama.

The electrifying first movement had a compelling and savage intensity, with powerful playing by the strings and brasses. The despairing second movement was capped by a pristine performance of the sad flute solo by Mark Sparks, which contrasted strongly with the breakneck pace of the third, played with appropriately violent precision. The ominous transition to the deranged march of the fourth movement was perfectly paced and played with ferocious perfection.

I've always liked the Vaughan Williams Fourth, but I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that listening to it can be emotionally exhausting, at least when it's done this well. It looked like it could be pretty physically taxing for the orchestra as well, but they all played beautifully.

The Saint Saëns concerto closed out the first half of the concert and while it, too, is a dramatic work, it's also elegant and charming. There's plenty of flash in the solo violin part, especially in the Spanish flair of the final movement (a reminder that the concerto was written with Pablo de Sarasate in mind), but there's also lyrical beauty in this music. That's most apparent in the second movement, a gently rocking barcarolle that concludes with a delicate duet for clarinet and violin harmonics.

Soloist James Ehnes is not, as I noted the last time he appeared here, a showy artist. Tall and imposing in white tie and tails, he cut a magisterial figure on stage Saturday night.

He approached the first movement with authority and restraint, but had no hesitation about throwing his whole body into its dramatic final pages. He and Mr. Macelaru gave the second movement a feathery delicacy, especially in the final duet with the clarinet, and they tore into the finale with impressive passion.

The standing ovation that followed was no surprise, but the encore was: Sibelius's "Humoresque No. 3 in G minor" for Violin and Orchestra, op. 89, no. 1. It's unusual to get an encore with orchestral accompaniment, but as Mr. Ehnes pointed out in his tongue-in-cheek introduction, "the maestro didn't think I had enough to do in that last piece." It was a completely charming miniature, conjuring up images of Finnish folk fiddling, and a great way to send us off to the intermission.

Next at Powell Hall: Bernard Labadie conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and soprano soloist Lydia Teuscher Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, March 16 and 17. The program consists of Haydn's "Symphony No. 99," the "Symphony in C minor" by Henri-Joseph Rigel, and opera and concert arias by Mozart. Resident Conductor Gemma New leads the orchestra in "Pinocchio's Adventures in Funland," a Family Concert on Sunday, March 18, at 3 pm. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.

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