This weekend’s concerts by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra mark resident conductor Gemma New’s subscription series debut, in a program that’s a great mix of colorful favorites and newer works.
On Friday morning at Powell Hall, New and the orchestra proved, once again, that there’s really no substitute for a live performance.
All four works on the program tell a story and offer a vibrant range of instrumental colors. New invested them all with energy and understanding, and the orchestra was in top form.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnol” was a terrific opener, its bravura Iberian themes serving as a wake-up for any insufficiently caffeinated audience members. New rang the changes of its themes and styles with idiomatic flair. The percussion section got a workout, and there were first-rate solos by several principal players, particularly associate concertmaster Heidi Harris and principal clarinet Scott Andrews.
Like the final work on the program, Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” the 1972 “Cantus Arcticus,” Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, uses recorded birdsong. In “Arcticus,” an array of Arctic birds are featured, as the orchestra joins and accompanies them. Opening with a pair of flutes, it builds gradually; after a melancholy passage, we hear the sounds of migration, and the music dies away. It’s a wonderfully evocative piece and was beautifully played.
SLSO piccolo Ann Choomack was the soloist in the U.S. premiere of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür’s 2016 “Solastalgia” for Piccolo Flute and Orchestra. It’s 15 minutes long and frequently stormy.
In his notes, Tüür writes, “Solastalgia is a neologism that describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change,” particularly such change “impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.” As such, it’s not always easy to listen to, but it was fascinating and well-played.
Choomack met its technical challenges skillfully, with backup from her section colleagues on flute, alto flute and bass flute and from the orchestra as a whole. Tüür was present for the performance, taking bows (and bestowing hugs) when it ended.
Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” was the perfect conclusion for this program, taking the listener to four places and moods, from an afternoon of children’s games to the return of a powerful army. Respighi’s ability to paint a vivid picture in music matches that of Rimsky-Korsakov, and the effect of the finale is visceral.
New and her forces made the most of it, in the best performance I’ve heard. Associate principal trumpet Thomas Drake, associate principal clarinet Diana Haskell, principal flute Mark Sparks and others made fine solo contributions, but the whole was a testimony to the evocative power of a great orchestra.
What St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Pines of Rome • When 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday • Where Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard • How much $25-$112 • More info 314-534-1700; slso.org