By Sarah Bryan Miller
When you’ve got the right performers, just about anything goes well with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. This weekend at Powell Symphony Hall, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra got it right.
The conductor was the understated but effective Cristian Macelaru, making a welcome return; the soloist was the equally welcome Orli Shaham, in her annual appearance with the orchestra. The program featured Russian Romantic music by Mily Balakirev and Serge Rachmaninoff, along with the second installment in the SLSO’s season-long survey of the five Beethoven piano concertos.
Balakirev (1837-1910) is not a particularly well-known composer, but he taught several who are. His ideas on using Russian folk themes and exotic orchestrations helped to shape the work of bigger names such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin.
His “Islamey” was composed as a fiendishly difficult work for solo piano, and is rarely heard. (This was its SLSO premiere.) The orchestral arrangement by composer Sergei Lyapunov (1859-1924) uses Balakirev’s preferred style of colorful orchestration. It’s a big, percussion-filled brass spectacular; while better on piano, it was still a lot of fun in the hands of Macelaru and the orchestra.
Beethoven needs no introduction, and no apologies; the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major is a distinctive masterpiece that stands alone in his oeuvre.
Shaham took a sensitive, intelligent approach to the music that meshed well with her splendid technical facility. She brings a quiet intensity and an elegance that encloses strength in an appealing way, supporting her thoughtfulness with the score. Her cadenzas were particularly beautiful and well-played.
Macelaru and the orchestra were first-rate collaborators, supporting and joining the soloist sympathetically with good balance and strong playing. The performance earned the big ovation that greeted it.
In response, she offered a well-played encore that fit well with the rest of the evening’s program: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12.
Rachmaninoff’s final work, “Symphonic Dances,” was the sole focus of the second half. It received a fine reading from Macelaru and the full orchestra.
Macelaru shaped the first movement’s variety of moods well, with the particular help of alto saxophone Nathan Nabb, whose smooth tone added materially to the ensemble’s sound.
The brass section had a chance to show off in the second movement, and its members shone as they repeatedly got in the way of the slightly sinister waltz that is the main theme.
The third movement features the ancient Latin “Dies irae,” a part of the Requiem mass, and so often used by Rachmaninoff that it could have been his leitmotif. Here he presents it in cheery, jazzed-up form before moving on to assorted variations on that theme; this might well be the ultimate in “Dies irae” treatments.
It received a rousing performance, in a solid ending to a well-played evening of music.