This weekend's concerts by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Symphony Hall were made notable by a pair of auspicious debuts — one planned, the other last-minute — a surprising SLSO premiere and a wide-ranging selection of Germanic compositions.
The planned debut was that of conductor Karina Canellakis. Originally a violinist, Canellakis has met with great success on the podium, winning the Georg Solti Conducting Award in 2016; she'll officially become the chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in September.
The unplanned debut was due to illness on the part of the announced soloist, violinist Renaud Capuçon, who was to have performed Robert Schumann's Violin Concerto. With just a few days' notice, Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen stepped in with Mozart's Concerto No. 5 in A major for Violin and Orchestra, the "Turkish."
On Friday morning, Canellakis led off with a spirited if slightly bombastic account of Beethoven's "Leonora" Overture No. 3.
Chen, who plays the 1715 "Joachim" Stradivarius, showed off a terrific technique in the Mozart, tossing off an impressive cadenza in the first movement and switching to a sweetly understated lyricism in the second. The "Turkish" theme that gives the concerto its nickname was purely fun.
Chen was rewarded by the audience with a thunderous ovation and responded with a suitably flashy encore, Paganini's Caprice No. 21. It's to be hoped that the SLSO will bring him back for a regularly scheduled performance.
The works in the first half called for small ensembles; the stage was filled, however, for the two big pieces of the second half. The Symphonic Fantasy from "Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow)," by Richard Strauss, begins with the ominous descending theme of Keikobad, King of the Spirit Realm, but the composer focused on musical themes from the human side of his opera.
It's a big, complex score with a lot to say. It's surprising that this piece hadn't been performed by the SLSO before; it was a welcome addition to the repertoire. Canellakis brought together its disparate strands and made them into an enchanting whole.
She did the same with Paul Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber." There was tremendous energy in the big opening movement; the scherzo, based on faux-Chinese music for "Turandot," was delightful. The boffo ending was the perfect ending for a first-rate concert.
The orchestra, returning from its post-holiday break, was in top shape. There were great moments from most of the principal players, particularly principal flute Mark Sparks, English horn Cally Banham, associate principal trumpet Thomas Drake and principal timpani Shannon Wood. The brass section was in splendid voice throughout.