This weekend’s concerts by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are an exercise in pure enjoyment. There’s nothing spiky on the program, nothing that’s intellectually more than emotionally appealing — and that’s all right.
On Friday morning, playing for an almost-full house, guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier led the SLSO in music by a trio of contemporaries: a French composer, an Italian virtuoso, and an Italian composer who retired to Paris to focus on French food.
The program opened with the Overture to “L’italiana in Algeri,” by the foodie Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). It’s a delightful confection, and in Tortelier’s expert hands, all the ingredients were perfectly balanced, an ideal antipasto. Guest piccolo Julie Duncan Thornton of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and acting co-principal oboe Philip Ross were standouts.
Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) played with such demonic flair that he was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil, a legend he did nothing to dispel. His Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major is certainly hellishly difficult; violinist Augustin Hadelich performed it with angelic calm and supernal technique.
The concerto is very much the instrumental equivalent of the bel canto vocal writing so popular at the time: It’s all about the soloist, and all about astonishing the listener. As in an aria by Bellini, the orchestra is there strictly to provide accompaniment, with lots of “ta-da!” moments in the brass.
Hadelich was impressive in the first movement, Allegro maestoso, especially when he got to the cadenza, his own recapping and previewing of the concerto’s most treacherous moments. The second movement, Adagio, was a deceptively restful moment before the astonishing finale, Rondo: Allegro spiritoso. To switch metaphors, Hadelich knocked it out of the park.
The audience sprang to its collective feet, letting out roars of approval. The players seemed as impressed as the public, with big grins on most faces and real applause (as opposed to polite bow tapping) coming from the stage.
Hadelich, projecting geniality, thanked them with an encore, the Andante movement from J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor. It was very different from what went before, a simple, affecting piece played with pure feeling.
The second half continued the demonic theme with the brilliant opium dream “Symphonie fantastique” by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). A proto-tone poem, it describes an artist’s obsessive love, attempt to poison himself and resultant nightmare of murder, execution and hellish torments, with one of music’s all-time great endings.
Along with the visceral pleasure of that final sonic kick, it offers audiences a thoroughly enjoyable ride (and the fun of watching a theme move from the first violins to the seconds, to the violas and finally to the cellos), and musicians a series of opportunities to strut their stuff. Tortelier let them shine.
This was a sonically rich reading, and every section contributed magnificently. English horn Cally Banham played the beloved’s theme with golden tones; associate principal clarinet Diana Haskell then twisted that theme with just the right degree of mocking ribaldry in the witches’ sabbath. The brass was in collectively magnificent voice, and the percussion, from multiple timpani to offstage bells, packed a punch.