Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has responded to the COVID crisis in many inventive ways. Some of them were on display Friday morning at yet another concert with a limited audience, only 12 wind players plus a string bass spread out across a large stage and about an hour of music rather than the usual two.
With only two pieces on the program, the atmosphere in the cavernous hall was more intimate, confirming another old adage that less can sometimes be much more.
In the 18th century, Mozart and his contemporaries wrote dozens of chamber pieces to entertain their royal benefactors at various social occasions. You could say that these divertimentos, serenades and partitas (or suites) were the popular music of the time, using small contingents of strings or winds or both. Most had multiple movements of abstract music as well as popular dance forms like a minuet.
Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” is his most famous, but another of his best serenades — one that is more profound than mere party music — is his 45-minute No. 10 subtitled “Grand Partita” which was the focal point of the program.
It has seven movements ranging from contemplative slow adagios to gently swinging minuets to a “theme and variations” section that in certain parts sounds like a hurdy-gurdy at a carnival.
The fifth movement “Romance” is alternately warm and lively — like a miniature tone poem describing an enjoyable date. Virtuoso solo opportunities for each instrument abound. And the chamber format allows for the marvelous detail of Mozart’s writing to emerge with crystal clarity.
After some informal opening remarks, conductor Stéphane Denève devoted the first 10 minutes of the concert to another serenade, this one by Richard Strauss.
His Opus 7 for wind instruments was written when he was 17. It’s full of charm and pleasant tunes; it was a nice complement to the Mozart.
In both works the small ensemble left every note from every artist completely exposed. Naturally all those world-class instrumentalists were perfection itself. Balances were outstanding; intonation was spot on; the playing immaculate; everybody in agreement about the shape of each phrase; and the terrific acoustics of a half-empty Powell Hall allowed the sound to blossom.
If “grand” partita is a contradiction in terms, here’s another one to sum up this uniquely satisfying concert: profoundly delightful.
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra “Sweet Serenades”
When • 7:30 p.m. May 1, 3 p.m. May 2
Where • Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard
How much • $25-$50
More info • 314-534-1700; slso.org