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SLSO begins Beethoven festival

SLSO begins Beethoven festival

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The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra began its four-week Beethoven festival this weekend with one of the composer’s most popular symphonies, along with an engaging new work and a challenging older one.

The conductor for these concerts was the Russian Andrey Boreyko, music director of the Orchestre National de Belgique and the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, as well as music director designate of the Naples Philharmonic. He’s a conductor who knows precisely what he wants, who almost always wants the right thing, and who goes about getting it in an understated but effective manner.

The first half was a study in contrasts. The program opened with Stephanie Berg’s seven-minute “Ravish and Mayhem,” which despite the somewhat alarming title turned out to be a really delightful work. Berg, a clarinetist-turned-composer who graduated from the University of Missouri in December 2008, is the 2009 winner of the Sinquefield Composition Competition, and a promising new compositional voice.

The sound world of “Ravish” suggests what might have resulted had Virgil Thomson (in folksy mode) visited the Levant and done a stylistic mash-up. It’s filled with open all-American harmonies, woodwind lines from the suqs and bazaars, and frenetic, exotic percussion. It comes to its peak with the entrance of sonically realistic elephants, deliciously rendered by the trombone section. It’s a fun, creative piece, and Boreyko and the orchestra rendered it with accuracy and elan. We can trust that this won’t be the last we hear from Berg.

It was followed by Carl Neilsen’s challenging neoclassical Violin Concerto. While the concerto has some passages of great beauty, it’s not an easy work to perform or to take in; too often, its language is more intellectually than emotionally satisfying. Fortunately, it had a group of first-rate artists to give it life.

The linchpin was the soloist, Australian violinist Adele Anthony. Making her SLSO debut with the weekend’s concerts, she demonstrated not only technique and musicianship (as well as collegiality in her shared passages with the orchestra), but sheer endurance: The cadenza in the second movement, Allegro cavalleresco, demands an amazing amount of concentration and skill. It’s not a showpiece in the usual sense, but it’s still a work that demands a virtuoso. Anthony dazzled with her abilities.

The second half was taken up by the program’s anchor, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. It seems likely that it received less rehearsal time than the two unfamiliar works; at any rate, the opening movement was messy in its first measures. The horns were in poor voice to start, and the overall sound tended toward the muddy. They pulled it together and received applause at the movement’s end, but it wasn’t up to the SLSO’s usual standard.

Fortunately, Boreyko and his players were back in excellent form for the second movement, and were completely in sync by the nicely paced third, which the conductor brought to a clear, quick conclusion. The final movement was a bit zippy (Allegro, indeed), but it was vibrant and energetic, and helped to erase the memory of the beginning.

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