SLSO presents a perfect program for a holiday weekend

St Louis Post-Dispatch

It’s always interesting at performances of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to check the program to note the last time a particular work was performed here. Sometimes the information is surprising.

In this weekend’s program at Powell Symphony Hall, for example, the promoted piece — Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat minor, the “Emperor” — was most recently given in 2014.

It’s a masterpiece, of course, and deserves its frequent hearings; no complaints here.

The other two compositions, although familiar to anyone who tunes into classical radio stations on a regular basis, were new, or almost new, to the SLSO.

Both were tone poems from the early 20th century, “Pohjola’s Daughter,” a 1906 piece by Jean Sibelius, and Ottorino Respighi’s “Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome),” from 1917.

Guest conductor Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, hasn’t been here since 2010. One of the best in the business, he made a welcome return.

So did Stephen Hough. Hough is simply one of the finest pianists of the age; on his journey through the “Emperor,” he seemed to be channeling Beethoven.

He listens to his colleagues and plays with an astounding range, from gossamer delicacy to assertive strength, his hands skimming over the keyboard and bringing out the heart of the music.

The conclusion of the first movement drew strong applause and rightly so. At the concerto’s end, the response was overwhelming. There were persistent calls for an encore that were not, unfortunately, answered.

Spano seemed to have a fine rapport with both his soloist and the orchestra. The tempos were all spot-on in a performance to cherish in every way.

The Sibelius received its SLSO premiere on Friday night, while the Respighi hadn’t been heard here since 1974.

Both are strong works; taken altogether, the relatively brief program (less than two hours in all) was filled with good choices for a holiday weekend.
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