This weekend’s concerts by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are a feast of beautiful, melodic Czech and Russian Romantic music. On Friday night at Powell Symphony Hall, all three works were played with spirit and infectious enthusiasm by the orchestra, led by guest conductor Peter Oundjian.
The night belonged primarily, however, to principal cello Daniel Lee, here taking the soloist’s spot in Antonín Dvořák’s deeply Bohemian and equally melodious Cello Concerto. It was an education to observe how he communicated wordlessly but deeply with the other players, especially concertmaster David Halen.
Lee is a superb technician, but there are plenty of those; what makes him special is the way he combines that technique with enormous musical sensitivity, commitment and an ability to dig deeply into the music, mine the gold and gems he finds within, and then display them to their best advantage.
He played beautifully and profoundly throughout, aided by Oundjian and his supportive colleagues throughout the orchestra. Those colleagues were especially generous in the woodwinds, with several lovely duets played beautifully on both sides. Particularly notable was associate principal horn Thomas Jöstlein, who contributed an absolutely flawless line, but everyone was in top form.
Oundjian led it all with assurance and comfort, for a profound and lyrical whole.
The concert opened with the brief "Šárka" movement, excerpted from Bedřich Smetana's great (and very Bohemian) tone poem "Má vlast (My Homeland)." It’s an energetic retelling of a woman warrior’s revenge, and Oundjian gave it an equally energetic, well-paced reading, from the opening on.
That was too much for an infant who had, against regulations, been brought into the balcony. The baby awoke shrieking, getting the attention of even the players onstage before being ushered out. The rest of Šárka’s bloody tale was told without extramusical distraction and with musical distinction.
If the first half was unmistakably Bohemian, the second half was entirely Slavic. Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky’s uncharacteristically cheerful Symphony No. 2, the "Little Russian" is filled with charming folk melodies from Ukraine, known as "Little Russia."
Principal horn Roger Kaza opened it beautifully, followed by principal bassoon Andrew Cuneo. The woodwinds continued in excellent voice; the strings were in top form.
Oundjian handled the second movement’s nifty little march with a deft, light touch, and brought out the magic of the light, cheery Scherzo in the third movement.
The fourth movement is a grand brass-o-rama; it was beautifully paced and played throughout, for a boffo ending to a most enjoyable evening.