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Music review: Powerful Shostakovich from Boreyko and SLSO

Till Fellner

Till Fellner

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This weekend’s concerts by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra featured the return of an exciting conductor and the debut of an excellent pianist, in three widely ranging compositions.

The program opened with a familiar work — Rossini’s Overture to “William Tell,” his final opera — and closed with a final symphony that contains echoes of that and other familiar classics in a dark-hued whole, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 in A major. In between came Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, part of the SLSO’s season-long survey of all five.

At Friday morning’s performance at Powell Symphony Hall, conductor Andrey Boreyko was at home in all three musical worlds. He showed a comfortable, easy rapport with the musicians of the SLSO, who responded with fine playing.

“Tell” runs only 10 minutes, but it covers a lot of ground. It opens with a prolonged and wide-ranging solo for the principal cello; Daniel Lee put his heart and soul into a gorgeous rendition of it, backed up by the rest of his section. The pastorale was noteworthy for the fine playing of English horn Cally Banham and principal flute Mark Sparks. The trumpets kicked off the rousing finale, bringing it all to an enjoyable conclusion.

Austrian pianist Till Fellner is an elegant musician who performed the concerto as if it were chamber music. This wasn’t muscular or heavy, but light and clear throughout; Fellner, who studied with Alfred Brendel, was sensitive and skillful throughout. He used Beethoven’s own cadenzas and made them his own, in a winning performance.

Rossini and “William Tell” returned briefly in the first movement of the Shostakovich, which also has quotes from Mahler, Glinka, Wagner and Shostakovich himself. Composed in a little over a month in 1971, the 15th is, in a way, the composer’s last musical testament. It’s a chilling one, reflecting the time and place in which he lived.

There’s plenty of playfulness in the first movement, particularly in the use of Rossini’s trumpets, but it doesn’t last. The second movement is somber and dark, with musical effects that are chilling. There are still boisterous moments (you can’t keep the clarinets down), but this is not cheerful stuff. It is, however, an important composition.

The final movement quotes liberally from Wagner, with a low brass opening that recalls “Götterdämmerung” and, later on, mournfulness from “Tristan und Isolde.” It ends simply.

Boreyko gets this music, and he and the orchestra fully explored its mordant moods. There were great solo moments from many of the players, particularly Lee, principal trombone Timothy Myers and concertmaster David Halen.

Shostakovich wrote wonderful music for most of the sections, including the flutes, bassoons, brass and the augmented percussion section, which gave the symphony its musical backbone.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Shostakovich 15

When 8 p.m. Saturday • Where Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard • How much $25-$111 • More info 314-534-1700 or stlsymphony.org

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

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