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St. Louis Post Dispatch

St. Louis Symphony's Odd
Mix Works Wonderfully
Sarah Bryan Miller

By SARAH BRYAN MILLER

At first glance,, combining music from Smetana's "Bartered Bride", a concerto by Philip Glass and Respighi's "Pines of Rome" in a single concert isn't a natural fit.  "Bride", the Czech national opera, premiered in 1886; "Pines" is a program music from 1924; the Glass, in a very different style, was written on the cusp of the 21st Century.

But what looked odd on paper worked very well, and at Friday morning's performance by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra it received an enthusiastic response from an audience consisting primarily of seniors and high school students.

The overture and dances from "Bride" are bright and sparkling; Czech-born conductor Zdenek Macall made them irresistible.  He and the orchestra found the right balance for the distinctive rhythms and kept them from ever getting ponderous, for a thoroughly enjoyable reading.

If Smetana made use of the musical influences around him -- in his case, Bohemian folk music -- so does Philip Glass.
His "Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra," commissioned by soloist Jonathan Haas and premiered last November, clearly shows the footprints of popular music from the mid-20th century: There's a lot of "Mission Impossible" here, along with touches of "The Magnificent Seven" -- is that a hint of "Inna-gadda-da-vida"?

But as Smetana absorbed an idiom and made it his own, so does Glass, and in the form of a classical double concerto.  ("It has a cadenza between the second and third movements" said Glass in his brief comments from the stage before the performance, "just like Beethoven.  Well, almost like Beethoven.")  His musical style has grown richer with time; the repetition is still there, but there was a quicker development of themes -- and a real sense of joy.

The soloists -- Haas and Symphony principal timpanist Richard Holmes -- offered an athletic spectacle as well as a musical feat of no small proportions.  Haas has been living with his concerto for quite a while now, and he plays it almost intuitively.  And it was a special pleasure to see Holmes perform at the front of the stage and receive the audience's plaudits for his fine contribution.

The best news is that both the kids and the retirees were enthused about this piece.  The students near me were completely engaged; they were among the first to leap to their feet for a prolonged, deserved standing ovation.

The concert ended strongly, with a near-flawless performance of "Pines," beautifully judged throughout by Macal, and dazzlingly played by the orchestra.  The big, exciting finish was the perfect ending to a terrific concert.  You have two more chances to hear it.  Take the kids.

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