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Music reviews: Stirring Mozart and Brahms from SLSO; solid Winter Opera "Merry Widow"

Music reviews: Stirring Mozart and Brahms from SLSO; solid Winter Opera "Merry Widow"

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Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk. John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation photo

The focus in this weekend’s program by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was chamber music — with one orchestral work that feels like chamber music and a chamber work that’s been expanded for full orchestra — along with a supremely Romantic symphonic poem that riffs on a Greek myth.

Happily, in conductor Jun Märkl and pianist Jeremy Denk, the SLSO had a pair of superb interpreters.

Mozart’s music is always filled with the essence of humanity, both its joys and sorrows. That’s particularly true in the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, where the mix is particularly well-balanced; there’s always something deeper and more meaningful located beneath the wit.

On Friday morning at Powell Hall, Denk brought a delicate but authoritative touch and an almost improvisational air to the proceedings.

Completely in tune with Märkl and the orchestra, he explored the myriad moods of Mozart’s score with every appearance of enjoyment. The cadenza that concluded the first movement sparkled.

They returned the favor, with a display of excellent ensemble work. The woodwinds were in particularly fine form. Lively, spirited and joyous, the effect was as intimate as that of well-played chamber music and brightened the day of those who heard it.

The large audience gave Denk, Märkl and the orchestra a well-deserved ovation. Denk offered an encore, the Andante movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, played with technical skill and depth of feeling.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Arnold Schoenberg’s imaginative orchestration of the Piano Quartet in G minor by Johannes Brahms.

Schoenberg saw Brahms as a musical pioneer after his own heart and turned the chamber piece in a (piano-less) large-scale orchestral work. He kept the string writing intact but expanded the sound world with additional instruments and a full battery of percussion.

It was certainly colorful and engaging, if not always Brahmsian, particularly in the “Gypsy rondo” of the fourth movement. Märkl, who conducted without a score, seemed to be having a wonderful time throughout. He and the orchestra seem to have a fine rapport, which shone forth through the entire program.

The curtain-raiser was Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem “Prometheus,” a musical retelling of the Greek myth.

The Titan Prometheus helped humanity and thereby annoyed Zeus. When Prometheus stole fire and shared it with human beings, Zeus chained him to a rock, where an eagle perpetually gnawed at him.

Liszt’s dramatic music has tragic tones to reflect the story, but it ends in triumph despite that pesky bird. This was its first performance by the SLSO, which gave it a convincing performance.

Meanwhile, Winter Opera St. Louis opened its 10th anniversary season on Friday night with Franz Lehar’s quintessentially Viennese operetta “The Merry Widow,” at Chaminade’s Viragh Center.

“Widow” is a lighthearted romp with a tissue-thin plot and great tunes by the bucketful. Set in Paris at the embassy of the mythical Balkan principality of Pontevedro, the story deals with two romances, one of them first thwarted by the lack of money and now by the presence of too much, the other doomed from the start but with a reasonably happy ending anyway.

Winter Opera gave it a strong cast and a solid production.

Both romantic couples were well-matched, both vocally and dramatically, and all four had great stage presence. The first, the widowed Hanna Glawari and her old flame Count Danilo, were taken by Kathy Pyeatt and tenor Clark Sturdevant.

She has a fine soprano, along with the requisite worldly air that sets this role apart. He was dissolutely handsome, sang well and made the most of every moment onstage.

As Valencienne, the wife of the ambassador, Baron Zeta, mezzo-soprano Holly Janz sang beautifully and danced up a storm with the grisettes in Act III. Her pursuer, Camille, was worth pining for in the person of tenor Jack Swanson. With a gorgeous, clear voice and good looks, he’s the perfect male lead.

As Zeta, baritone Gary Moss displayed good comic timing although his Pontevedrian accent was a bit too thick to be completely understood at times. Baritone Kurtis Shoemake spun comic gold as his assistant, Njegus. The rest of the large cast was equally strong, starting with Hanna’s gold-digger suitors, Zachary Devin as St. Brioche and Joel Rogier as Cascada.

“Widow” is traditionally performed in the language of the audience. The English diction of the cast varied from individual to individual, but enough got through to make it easy to follow the plot. That was fortunate, because for some reason the surtitles were projected in white on a black screen and virtually impossible to read.

The opera began with sour tones from the orchestra, but things rapidly improved. Conductor Scott Schoonover moved things along stylishly with a few moments of disconnect between the pit and stage.

Dean Anthony’s stage direction kept things suitably light and funny; some of the timing on the dialogue could be improved. The athletic dances were nicely done, and the “Women! Women! Women!” number’s reprise featured some great work with tambourines.

It would have been better from a vocal standpoint to wait until Hanna had finished her high note for the waiters to hoist her in the third act.

Scott Loebl’s sets were handsome but so bulky that they necessitated doing the operetta in three acts instead of the usual two. The production included some numbers that are usually cut from the third act.

Oddly, since Acts II and III were done separately, the entr’acte that normally bridges the set change between them was kept in as an introduction to the third act. Disappointingly, the traditional orchestral vamping during the bows was cut.

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

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