Marie-Ange Nguci at the piano | photo credit Thomas Manillier Photographie

Comparison, goes the axiom, is the thief of joy. The third weekend of April 2024, Guest Conductor John Storgårds convened the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra at Anheuser-Busch Hall for a program of three Finnish and Danish works, yoked oddly with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto № 2 in B♭. Though an enjoyable collection, it demonstrated the absent Music Director Stéphane Denève’s genius for program construction, which this one lacked. Beethoven seemed unrelated, the concerto parachuting in because the SLSO had checked off its four siblings earlier in the season.

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

In parallel, Marie-Ange Nguci’s skilled but less-than-transcendent delivery of the piano concerto might have made more impact in isolation but suffered by comparison with Paul Lewis’ Fourth last autumn and Tom Borrow’s recent “Emperor.” The concert rated merely a-okay, serving to indicate the absurd heights where the orchestra has consistently flown this year.

My late mother loved mentioning “Blackberry Winter,” a folk name for a standard-issue mild cold front moving across the country in spring. It didn’t qualify as winter, nor did it co-occur with June’s blackberries there in the American South; just a pleasant April reprieve before six solid months of punishing heat and humidity. Chuck Lavazzi’s preview of this program emphasized the chillier elements of the three Scandinavian works; our Midwestern spring obliged the orchestra with a weekend cooldown before the Gulf of Mexico soon took to spitting consistent humidity and tornadoes at us.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) bookended this lineup with his “Rakastava” (“The Lover,” 1894) and his Symphony № 7 in C major (1924). Doing the honors as concertmaster, SLSO veteran Erin Schreiber led the first violins, playing a lovely solo in the last of the three movements. Usually seated near the first violins, I remember first encountering Schreiber, my first season attending the SLSO in 2007; she impressed then, scarcely past voting age, and does now. After a few concerts, I leaned to my companion, gestured Erin-ward, and said “I think she’ll be concertmaster one day.” Though David Halen still leads the violins magnificently, I stand by this prediction. Storgårds greeted her, ascended the podium, and led the band with no baton and measured gestures.

“Rakastava” presents in three movements, an eponymous one, and two translated “The Path of the Beloved” and “Good Night…Farewell!” It began life as a choral work, shed a fourth movement, and Sibelius completed this instrumental version for a modest complement of strings, timpani and triangle. A soft, searching opening of violins and violas gave way to anticipatory rumblings, piano, in the low strings. The “Path” movement followed a similar pattern, delicacy in the first and second violins, but the violas accompanied them pizzicato, held like ukuleles. The violins turned to cycling figures with a slightly frolicky air, perhaps a brisk walk by a rushing stream. The last movement bid us good night and farewell with Schreiber’s sopranistic solo, with a slightly anguished line from principal cellist Danny Lee, and in a serious mode generally, everyone on the lower strings of their respective instruments, before the ‘celli made their last comment high on the A string. Schreiber and Lee got curtain calls.

In rolled the Steinway—UMSL is a Steinway campus, Chancellor Sobolik regularly reminds—for Marie-Ange Nguci’s turn in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto № 2 in B♭ (1795), really his first piano concerto, in order of composition, not publication. The composer fiddled with it for years after its birth, considering it subpar to his later works. Ludwig presents, at times, a slightly anterior-looking, Mozartean face, as well as seasoning his works with a dancy Haydnesque flair, before going full Beethoven during the 18-aughts while losing his hearing. (Haydn, of course, a generation older than Mozart, survived him by most of another, dying only in 1809 as Beethoven’s career matured). You can hear influences of Haydn in the concerto, but much more from Mozart—an unusual degree of frivolity, and underdeveloped heart-attack seriousness, by Beethoven’s standards. If I’d never heard it and if quizzed, I might misidentify it as Mozart.

Barely into her mid-20s, the Franco-Albanian Nguci continued the parade of young talent crossing the SLSO stage in recent seasons. The first movement, allegro con brio, began with an unusually long intro before the piano, maybe four minutes, a Mozartean courtly dance. Nguci made her first entrance clarion but slightly forceful, her persistent staccato landing like typewriter strokes. The second cadenza began like flowing liquid, but returned to percussive, peppering, plunky raindrops. Nguci gesturally engaged with the orchestra during their interjections, as the reprise of the A subject became a little more Beethovenly perturbed. Her hopscotching fingers transmitted more force and less flow. This became less of a liability and more of an asset as Mozartean lightness evaporated in the lightly chromatic closing cadenza. Beethoven closes with a sassy orchestral comment.

That comic tone at the end of the first movement departed in the second, an adagio in a vaguely elegiac mode. Nguci participated in a softer duet with the winds, her last cadenza wafting over daydreamy pianissimo strings. The attacca start to the third movement, a rondo, seemed to say “that last part wasn’t real.” Nguci’s piano and the orchestra bounced back and forth, feeling oddly parallel. Have you ever driven an automobile on a highway in Illinois, or Kansas, parallel to a train moving on tracks at approximately the same speed as your wheels? Sort of like that. Nguci played with great skill but little magic. Storgårds gestured more dramatically as the last, jokey, Haydnesque figure returned, Nguci plunking away. After applause, she offered no encore.

An SLSO premiere followed intermission, “Lysning” (“Glade”) by august Danish composer, Per Nørgård (1932-). He’s best known in America for the soundtrack to “Babette’s Feast” (1987), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and spent years as one of a handful of available movies from abroad populating Blockbuster Video’s VHS shelves. The composer references that second movement of “Rakastava” that we’d already heard, with a programmatic idea of a forest clearing and the patterns of light therein, exploring its relation to darkness. The posited chiaroscuro effect became evident immediately in interplay between principal violist Beth Guterman Chu and Danny Lee’s ‘cello, darker and lighter layers crosshatched. I’m reminded less of “Babette’s Feast” and more of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon (1950), all those shattered fragments of light and darkness in a Japanese forest. “Lysning” makes the one experiencing this forest sound lost, perhaps looking around for landmarks or other directional cues. In just five minutes, “Lysning” ends almost when it’s getting started.

The concert closed with one of the most peculiar symphonies in the standard repertory, Sibelius’ № 7 in C major. Its brief, one-movement form elapsing in twentyish minutes recalls the composer’s tone poems, and those of Richard Strauss. Time flies, and the orchestra hadn’t played this since David Robertson served it in 2010. Despite its brevity, it recalls many composers preceding and contemporary to the Finnish master. The strings opened with that rising scale, with knocking timpani and ominous horns. Everybody’s at this party with Sibelius. The fluttering winds and densely textured strings recall Vaughan Williams, like Sibelius, a northern European but distinctly un-Teutonic painter of sound. Like Vaughan Williams, the music remained very string-driven even when the brass spoke. The first massive crescendo gave the intensity of Mahler. When melodies came, they unfolded long-form, like Chopin; you bask for sixty or ninety seconds before realizing the wholeness of the phrase. The music again suggested ambient wildlife as did “Rakastava,” and Sibelius’ churning, maritime musical language, perhaps most gorgeous and magnificent in his Second Symphony, made its appearance midway through. The horns built and built, a small ship in turbulent water, rounding a dogleg in an estuarine seaway. Those echoes of № 2 calmed at the end, with Straussian lushness.

Altogether a fine concert, if less captivating than most this year by our hometown band. The SLSO’s year closes with perhaps the two greatest crowd-pleasers in classical music, Yo Yo Ma, and Bugs Bunny. Be certain neither will disappoint.

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