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Nicholas McGegan

Conductor Nicholas McGegan

Borrowing musical elements from other cultures, especially cultures considered exotic and, just possibly, not quite as advanced as one’s own, has long been standard for composers. On Friday morning at Powell Symphony Hall, guest conductor Nicholas McGegan led the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program that employed exoticism to delightful effect.

The Turkish Ottoman Empire was a serious threat to Europe for centuries, from before the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Martin Luther prayed for deliverance from the Turk and the Pope; the first of those prayers was shared by all of Europe.

By the time the composers for this weekend’s program — Jean-Philippe Rameau (born in 1683), Josef Haydn (1732), Wolfgang Mozart (1756) and Carl Maria von Weber (1786) — came along, though, the Turk was well on his way from a figure of terror to a figure of fun. Mozart could even afford to make a pasha into a noble character.

Meanwhile, the distinctive, percussion-heavy sounds of the Turkish military band had made their way into the European musical consciousness. Writing in the “Alla turca” style (featuring cymbals, made since 1623 by the Zildjian company, and triangles) became widely popular.

Weber’s cymbal-heavy Overture to “Abu Hassan” set the tone for the morning, with four minutes of lively fun. McGegan is always a delight to watch as he conducts, a walking, bouncing, dancing advertisement for attending live concerts, and this was no exception.

It was followed by Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, with the significant SLSO debut of Stefan Jackiw as soloist. Jackiw plays with power, clarity and a beautiful singing tone. He’s an impressive presence, with terrific facility and strength that combined for a big sound without any loss of fluency.

Although the violin and orchestra had moments where they were not completely together, both Jackiw and McGegan took a graceful approach to the concerto. This is beautiful, joyful music, and it’s possible to toss it off as a pretty diversion. These musicians enjoyed the fun but found and explored the substance as well.

St. Louisans usually reward any reasonably competent performer with a standing ovation, but the applause on Friday was so persistent and heartfelt that Jackiw played an encore, the Largo movement from the Sonata in C major by J.S. Bach.

After the intermission, McGegan got to lead some music from his specialty, the Baroque. Rameau’s Suite from his opera “Les Indes galantes (The Gallant Indies)” relies on not one but but four varieties of the exotic: Turkey, plus Peru, Persia and North American.

It’s episodic, spiced with just the right amount of alluring coloration, and quite charming, with a lovely duet for violin and flute that was beautifully played by concertmaster David Halen and associate principal flute Andrea Kaplan. It received a delicious reading from McGegan & Co.

The finale, Haydn’s familiar Symphony No. 100 in G major, “Military,” at times sounds like a battle between European and “Turkish” forces, with a recurring fife-like march for flute and oboe to begin and a musical battle in the second. In artistic terms, everybody wins.

Really, the only loss in this concert is the fact that it’s the only one for which McGegan has been engaged this season. Let us hope to hear from him more often next year.

{hr /}Nicholas McGegan, Stefan Jackiw and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Saturday

Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard

$30 to $110

stlsymphony.org or 314-534-1700

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