The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra spent a big chunk of the last two weeks in California, on a cleverly planned tour. The first program involved the entire orchestra, but the second didn’t need all the string players, which let them return to play this weekend’s concerts.
The resulting program was notably different from the usual fare at Powell Symphony Hall, and gratifyingly varied. British violinist Anthony Marwood performed both as soloist and leader in three chamber works for strings from three very dissimilar eras.
On Friday night, the stage was first notable for its emptiness, with only a few chairs, a harpsichord and a scattering of music stands. The players entered together and began the performance with a terrific reading of J.S. Bach’s early 18th century Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048.
With just 11 players on the stage, with all but the lower strings standing to perform, Marwood and his forces had the flexibility to take this familiar Baroque work at an authentically zippy tempo. Bach’s powers of invention were vividly illustrated by this small group who listened, watched each other and interacted like the cooperative soloists they effectively were. The energy was palpable.
Antonín Dvorák’s 1875 Serenade in E major for String Orchestra, op. 22, had a very different kind of energy. This is a gracious Romantic work, lovely and lyrical. It’s unusual to take the Baroque standing approach to this style of music, but it worked.
A larger ensemble than in the curtain-raiser gave a silken sound to this inherently sweet and cheerful music. Marwood invested it with a light touch and a sense of the dance.
The short second half was Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ 1997 Violin Concerto, “Distant Light.” Composed in five sections that make up a single uninterrupted movement, it begins with eerie high-pitched sounds on the solo violin, as the other musicians provide echoes.
The concerto is primarily lyrical (with a huge storm near the end), melancholy, beautiful and tinged with regrets and tears. Highly challenging technically, there are echoes of the music of Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, but the work is overwhelmingly from Vasks’ own sonic world.
The small ensemble stood for this music, too. Even if the posture doesn’t actually cause the musicians to play with added energy, they certainly gave that impression.
There are several long cadenzas for the soloist. The last of them sets off the storm, followed by a wild dance and then calm. The piece ends much as it begins, quietly, with spooky notes in the stratosphere.
The playing by all on stage was exemplary throughout. The only criticism to be offered of Marwood’s playing is that he’s a foot-stomper, and that can distract from the music; as both leader and soloist, he was top-notch, with every idea beautifully expressed.
On the harpsichord, Peter Henderson, just back from rocking Olivier Messiaen’s “Des Canyons aux Étoiles … (From the Canyons to the Stars …)” on the California tour, switched gears effortlessly for Bach.
If you go: Anthony Marwood and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
When 8 p.m. Saturday • Where Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard • How much $25-$116 • More info 314-534-1700; stlsymphony.org