Lise de la Salle. Photo by Philippe Porter courtesy of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i' the air, strange screams of death;
And prophesying, with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

 'Twas a rough night.

 -- Shakespeare, "Macbeth" II,3

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

Granted this past Saturday night (April 15th) wasn’t quite as bad as that, but in case you spent so much time huddled up in your basement that night and missed local debut of Lise de Salle and the valedictory appearance of Assistant Conductor Stephanie Childress with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (as we very nearly did), I can only hope you made it to the concluding performance on Sunday. Because it was certainly worth it.

De la Salle’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concert in F minor (the first to be written but second to be published) was everything you want a Chopin concerto to be: an elegant mix of technical excellence and emotional power. Like Chopin himself, de la Salle showed a light, almost mercurial touch at the keyboard. Unlike the composer (whose understated playing was better suited to the salon than the concert hall), her dynamic range was wide enough to easily fill Powell Hall with torrents of sounds when the score called for it.  This is a Chopin F minor not to be missed.

Inspired by Chopin’s unrequited love for singer Konstancja Gladowsky, the concerto is a tribute to the composer’s ability to transmute quotidian lead into musical gold. In Chopin’s hands, hormonal teenage angst (Chopin was only 19 when he composed the concerto) became the basis for a moving and dramatic mix of Romantic sentiment with Classical form. De la Salle and Childress honored that with a collaboration that nicely balanced both aspects of the work.

The Maestoso first movement had a commanding sense of drama and gave the audience a chance to see Childress and de la Salle’s deep emotional commitment to the music. The famous Larghetto second movement had a sense of tragic urgency, especially in the central section with the piano crying out over tremolo strings. That made the contrast with the Allegro vivace finale, with its genial mazurka rhythms, that much more pronounced.

It was a noteworthy St. Louis debut for the young French pianist and a display of excellent work all the way around. The enthusiastic applause led to a quiet encore: Bach’s Chorale Prelude on “Ich Ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 639).

Childress, making her final appearance with the SLSO this weekend, began the evening with a dynamic and crystal clear Second Essay for Orchestra by Samuel Barber. Composed in 1942, the piece clearly reflects the anxiety of a world at war. It ends with a sense of serenity and hope for the future—something that probably felt as uncertain then as it does now.

In Grove Music Online, Barbara B. Heyman describes the Essay as employing “a rich orchestral palette…well-crafted formal design, fluent counterpoint, and haunting themes.” It’s something of a small scale “concerto for orchestra,” in fact, highlighting nearly every section of the band at one point or another. Add in the frequent changes in time signatures (6/8, 9/8,3/4, 5/8, and so on) and you have a work that can make or break a conductor and orchestra.

Needless to say, Saturday night’s performance was not just unbroken but positively triumphant. There was impressive work by the large horn section under Roger Kaza, Principal Tympani Shannon Wood, the powerful brasses, and all of the woodwinds, especially in the fugal central section. Childress conducted with an authority that made it all flow smoothly.

The real opportunity for both Childress and the orchestra to show their mettle, though was the immensely satisfying reading of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” that concluded the concert. Composed in 1898 and 1899, this collection of fourteen cameos of the composer’s friends and family was brought to vivid life by the orchestra under Childress’s baton.

There were so many wonderful moments here that I can hardly list them all, so I’ll settle for mentioning a few that were especially memorable. Variation 1, a portrait of Elgar’s wife Caroline, showcased the smooth, burnished sounds of the string section as did the majestic “Nimrod” variation (number 9), which has become popular as a stand-alone piece. Variations 3 and 5 allowed the woodwinds to show their whimsical and comic sides. The eerie sound of the solo clarinet (Principal Scott Andrews) paired with pianissimo rolls on the tympani (Shannon Wood) in variation 13 was exceptionally effective, and the full orchestra captured all the “Rule Britannia” grandeur of the composer’s self-portrait in the final variation.

During a moving tribute to her time with the SLSO that preceded the Elgar, Childress noted that conducting the “Enigma Variations” was “a rite of passage” for young British conductors. She passed that test with flying colors last night, bringing her valedictory appearance to a rousing conclusion.

Next at Powell Hall: Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and cello soloist Joshua Roman in Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote” along with Chabrier’s “España” and the 2015 “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology” by Mason Bates. Performances are Saturday at 10:30 am and Sunday at 3 pm, April 22 and 23. The Saturday morning concert will be broadcast Saturday night at 8 on St. Lous Public Radio and Classical 107.3.

Also on Saturday, Barbara Berner will conduct the St. Louis Children’s Choirs in a 45th anniversary concert at 7 pm.

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