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James Ehnes

James Ehnes (Photo by Ben Ealovega)

Powell Symphony Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for more than half a century, is a wonderful acoustic space, a great place to hear great music. It has its shortcomings, though; in artistic terms, the greatest is the lack of a pipe organ.

When Powell Hall was the St. Louis Theater, a movie palace and vaudeville house, it had a pipe organ, discarded in the building’s 1968 renovation. So far there hasn’t been the interest or money to replace it.

That’s a problem when a big piece with organ is on the program — and there is no bigger piece than the work that anchored this weekend’s concerts, the Symphony No. 3, “Organ,” by Camille Saint-Saëns.

A good pipe organ is an instrument of immensely varied tones, colors and sound combinations. When it’s played in a piece like the Saint-Saëns, you don’t merely hear it; you feel it as air moves through the pipes, making a live performance even more compelling than it would be ordinarily. Electronic organs (known as “toaster organs” in the business) do a decent job of filling in, but they just aren’t the same.

That aside, music director Stéphane Denève and the orchestra gave a stellar performance of the score, bringing down the house with the conclusion. Lively and lyrical, melodic and, at times, thunderous but never overbearing, it’s a terrific piece of Romantic writing, brilliantly scored and one of the composer’s masterpieces.

The symphony makes good use of its keyboard instruments, with sections for both two-hand and four-hand piano, played here by Nina Ferrigno and Kelly Karamanov. Andrew Peters did a great job on the organ. It made the perfect conclusion to the evening.

That evening began with a bilingual greeting from Denève (the audience’s collective pronunciation of “Bon soir” is improving) and a few words on the music. The curtain-raiser was a sensitive, beautifully played performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

It was followed by the Violin Concerto by John Williams. Composed from 1974-1976, its composition was influenced by the unexpected death of Williams’ wife, singer-actress Barbara Ruick, to whom it is dedicated; the second movement seems to express the composer’s grief.

The concerto didn’t receive its premiere until 1981, when Leonard Slatkin and the SLSO performed it. This time around, Denève, violinist James Ehnes and the SLSO are recording it.

It’s very much of its era in important ways. It’s extremely challenging technically for the soloist, who plays almost nonstop; a busy, sometimes atonal and frequently unsettling work. That’s particularly true in the first and third movements, with time out for some lyricism in the middle. There are big passages for the brass and woodwinds, and more hopeful music to conclude.

Ehnes received a richly deserved ovation, and performed two encores, the first time I’m aware of in more than 21 years. One was another technical challenge, the Sonata No. 3 in D minor by Eugène Ysaÿe; the other the Largo from the Sonata No. 3 in C major by J.S. Bach.

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.