There is more common than meets the eye to the three works on the programme by the St Louis Symphony Orchestra in the Powell Hall on Saturday night. The rhythmic diversity in each challenges the unity of the orchestra to the extreme. The composers of the works, which span over a century, were involved respectively in their première – Adès and Rimsky-Korsakov as conductor, and Shostakovich as piano soloist.

© Dilip Vishwanat
© Dilip Vishwanat

Thomas Adès’s chamber opera Powder Her Face hit the headlines in 1995 charting the fall of the Duchess of Argyll from a privileged position of raunchy excesses to the abject penury of a hotel evictee. The suite of dances from the opera was orchestrated for the Aldeburgh Festival in 2007. Under visiting conductor Peter Oundjian, the St Louis Symphony captured the caricature of high society follies with refreshing lucidity. Opening with a wry tango, the overture went on to survey other dances popular in the 1930s and 1940s that sounded like amorphous movements in a drunken stupor, with the low brass adding a strident touch of satirical jeer. After pizzicato high strings underpinning woodwinds sketched the piquant waltz, the low brass returned in the finale on a slippery slope of jagged rhythms. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s words in the poem The Harlot's House: “…Like strange mechanical grotesques,/ Making fantastic arabesques,/ The shadows raced across the blind...”

Shostakovich’s two piano concertos are a panoply of tongue-in-cheek chutzpah, mischievous hubris and self-indulgent lyricism. The Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor for piano, trumpet and string orchestra is full of humorous twists and playful parodies. The rapport between Karin Bliznik, newly appointed Principal Trumpet of the St Louis Symphony, and pianist Stewart Goodyear was seamless and palpable. The surprisingly slow tempo of the opening notes on trumpet and piano pared the edge of mischief, but added a sense of loss in the ensuing piano solo. The orchestra joined in a bout of toe-tapping happiness, as the trumpet launched into a zesty military fanfare. The lush and fluid strings revealed flashes of Tchaikovskian lyricism.

The Lento movement was mostly a lugubrious dialogue between piano and orchestra, with a subdued trumpet statement two thirds of the way in which Ms Bliznik’s superb control made the instrument sound truly velvety. The third movement, Moderato, was but an extended slow introduction to the brisk finale. As orchestra and piano engaged in an increasingly intense speed contest, the trumpet trotted out an elegant dance that paved the way for the piano’s parody of Beethoven’s Rondo a Capriccio, “Rage Over the Lost Penny”. After the trumpet launched a series of rapid-fire phrases punctuated by staccato piano chords, soloist Stewart Goodyear indulged in a ragtime gambol, with both joining together in a boisterous conclusion, to which the audience responded with an immediate standing ovation.

Scheherazade is a workhorse in the orchestral repertoire, and the most familiar composition by Rimsky-Korsakov, showing clearly the reasons for his reputation as an authority on orchestration. Loosely based on images drawn from the “Tales of Arabian Nights”, the four movements display a wide array of orchestral colours the envy of more popular composers. The St Louis Symphony surpassed the high standards they set in the first half of the evening and easily made mincemeat of other performances.

Much has been made of Rimsky-Korsakov’s characterisation of the wily Scheherazade with solo violin and her misogynistic and murderous husband the Sultan Shahriar with low brasses, woodwinds and strings, but we got much more in the hands of Peter Oundjian. Not only did the solo violin traverse the gamut of the instrument’s extreme tonal qualities, from squeaky pleas softer than harp arpeggios to burly reprobation, but the interplay between other groups of instruments stood out more than I expected. In the first couple of movements, the soothing dialogue between the flute and the cello; the bassoon paving the way to the oboe; juxtaposition of the trombone and the trumpet; pizzicato strings underneath the clarinet; solo horn; progressively enlarging percussion sound; all ecstatic moments.

The luscious strings excelled in the wistful lyricism of the third movement, with the clarinet deftly tossing a passage to the flute followed by a gentle march on snare drums and tambourine. A jerky start to the final movement accelerated to a gallop on woodwinds and strings, and if indeed the movement depicted the sea and shipwreck, as the title suggests, then Sinbad would have seen glorious hope in the sunrise judging by the crescendo on brass. The ending was subdued, with Scheherazade having the last word on solo violin.

Bravo to the St Louis Symphony for bringing out all the stops in a dazzling performance of rhythmic vigour and kaleidoscopic orchestral color.