New house, new century for the St. Louis Symphony

There are many ways for an orchestra to celebrate its 100th anniversary, but somehow the idea in St. Louis seems to have been the brightest. St. Louis decided to have a big evening, as would be expected. But rather than accumulate a list of glittery stars, it asked special performing friends of the orchestra to come and participate. The list was quite impressive -- Benita Valente, Emanuel Ax, Jeffrey Seigel, Claudine Carlson, Zara Nelsova, John Browning, Eleanor Aller Slatkin, Peter Schickele, Seth McCoy, and John Williams. (They all donated their services for the evening.)

For a long time this city was in a decline, but recently its residents have been doing something about it -- an action that is perhaps best symbolized by the huge arch that looms up over te old cathedral on the waterfront: modern and historic St. Louis sharing the skyline and the Acreage.

The historic area, a place even more ramshackle than Boston's waterfront and Quincy Market area once was, is now in the midst of a massive renovation and restoration. Other pockets of the city are beginning to look to self-improvement.

The orchestra is in its second century, one of the oldest orchestras in this country. It was also something of a homeless orchestra for many years, playing in Keil Opera House as merely a tenant. In 1968, Powell Symphony Hall emerged from a renovation of the St. Louis Theater and became the permanent home of the orchestra -- beginning the now- common trend of renovating valuable old vaudeville houses rather than building new facilities (at considerably higher cost).

Twelve years later, Powell Hall still looks fresh and handsome. It is a spacious place, so spacious that all the seats have two armrests. Acoustically it is quite fine -- as so many of those old houses were. The sightlines are clean and the orchestra fits effortlessly on the stage -- a permanent installation that backs up the ensemble as in any concert hall, using the remaining backstage (and above stage) space for offices.

Zara Nelsova is a cellist who should be heard more often on the East Coast and everywhere else. She has recorded the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the St. Louis under the late Walter Susskind -- a superb performance. Here she joined conductor Leonard Slatkin for the composer's "Rondo," then emerged with Slatkin and Jeffrey Seigel (as duo-pianists) for a haunting account of "The Swan" from Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," the first surprise of the evening.

Musically it was not an evening to be analyzed, only enjoyed. The comedic highlight was Peter Schickele as P.D.Q. Bach. The artistic highlight was a thrilling, beguiling performance of Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5" for eight cellos and soprano. Slatkin's mother, Eleanor Aller Slatkin, was the first cellist, and she and her group gave soprano Benita Valente the rich, intense support her sizzling account of the vocal line required -- quite a special moment, for this or any occasion!

John Williams led the orchestra in three selections from his score for "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back," and then, after a final intermission, Slatkin led the orchestra in a tremendous account of the "1812 Overture," with all the guest soloists manning bass drums and enacting the role of cannons for the all-ablaze finale of Tchaikovsky's popular piece.

it would not be fair or especially apt to make any assessment of the orchestra itself, though it appears to be in the forefront of the block right behind the so-called "top six." Slatkin became the 10th music director of the orchestra last season, which was its 100th, and this evening of festivities was to have occurred then, but a contract dispute delayed the opening weeks of the season. So this night was put off one year.

Slatkin is personable. He has flair, and he evidently has the support of his audience -- at least the one gathered for this event. Those are all precious commodities, and it looks very much as if the St. Louis Symphony is entering its second century in a very strong position, one that can only grow stronger as the years go by.

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