Exciting Tchaikovsky, exotic Scriabin with the St. Louis Symphony

Ward Stare

By Chuck Lavazzi

It has always seemed to me that one hallmark of a great orchestra is its ability to make a persuasive case not only for the standards of the repertoire but for more obscure works as well. It’s one thing to present a polished performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (as the SLSO did last weekend); it’s quite another to deliver an equally exciting reading of the less popular Concerto No. 2 and then follow it up with a compelling Scriabin Symphony No. 2, a work the symphony hasn’t done in over forty years.

Although dwarfed in popularity by its predecessor, Tchaikovsky’s Second is a work with ample charms of its own, starting with a slam-bang opening movement featuring a grandly optimistic first theme, a charmingly contrasting second, and long virtuoso passages for the piano that verge on the excessive. On Friday night, the audience expressed their admiration for soloist Stephen Hough by breaking into spontaneous applause at the end of that movement. I suspect Tchaikovsky would have approved—you can’t generate that much excitement and then expect folks to sit on their hands.

Tchaikovsky also knew what he was about with the following Andante non troppo, which features a lyrical, quasi-operatic duet for violin and cello (beautifully rendered by David Halen and Daniel Lee). Maybe it’s just the romantic in me, but I can’t help but wonder whether the loving interaction of the two instruments wasn’t Tchaikovsky’s way of expressing his affection for his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, with whom he shared a long, intensely Platonic, and almost entirely epistolary relationship. Perhaps that’s why he was particularly fond of the movement.

The final Allegro con fuoco wrapped everything up with more virtuoso fireworks, resulting in a well-deserved standing ovation for both Mr. Hough and Resident Conductor Ward Stare.

Mr. Stare is clearly a rising star in the conducting firmament. I had the pleasure of sharing the Powell Hall stage with him for Peter and the Wolf back in 2008 and he struck me then as a precise, no-nonsense but nevertheless good-humored presence on the podium who communicated effectively without undue theatrics. I saw nothing Friday night that would cause me to revise that opinion anywhere but upwards. It’s a shame he’s only doing one subscription program next season, even if it is a fascinating one combining music by Vivaldi, Schubert, and Osvaldo Golijov.

Mr. Stare really took the spotlight in the second half of the program, turning in a tremendously persuasive performance of Alexander Scriabin’s sometimes discursive but always intriguing Symphony No. 2. The work dates from 1902, when Scriabin was still to some extent finding his own way as a composer, but the lush orchestration, restless harmonies, and orgiastic excess that characterize much of his orchestral music were already present. His eccentric personal philosophy and multi-media experiments such as the Poem of Fire (which included a “color organ” of his own design) were still in the future, but it’s easy to hear their genesis in the exotic hothouse atmosphere of this work.

Laid out in either four or five movements (depending on how you count them) the Second is somewhat reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, complete with elaborate bird calls from the flutes in the second movement, a violent thunderstorm in the third, and a blazing finale that brings back the sun in all its pantheistic glory. Scriabin’s countryside sounds considerably more exotic and erotic than Beethoven’s—this is the man who would write The Poem of Ecstasy a few years later, after all—but it’s hard not to hear some parallels.

Top-notch orchestras and conductors make the familiar seem new and the unfamiliar sound like something they’ve been doing all their lives. This weekend’s concerts clearly place both the St. Louis Symphony and Ward Stare in that category. It’s a pity that a larger crowd didn’t turn out to hear them. Work of this quality deserves a wider audience.

No doubt that wider audience will turn out for the final concerts of the season May 5 through 8, when David Robertson will conduct the orchestra and chorus in Orff’s ever-popular Carmina Burana, along with the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 3. For more information, you can call 314-534-1700, visit slso.org, or follow @slso on Twitter.