Symphony features Salerno-Sonnenberg, Petrenko

04.26.09
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Two distinctive musical personalities were on stage Friday night with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall. One of them was violin soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who was here just two years ago; the other was guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, making his debut with the orchestra.

The Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 is a perfect fit for Salerno-Sonnenberg's personality. Some parts are lyrical and sweet; others are full of passion and fancy finger work.

Looking almost sporty in slacks, high heels and a sleeveless top, she got down to work right away. Her involvement with the music was complete. She played with the orchestra when the solo part had a rest, occasionally turning to the violin section and shaking her head in encouragement; sometimes she moved from side to side and back and forth with her feet planted wide apart as if she were the lead guitar in a rock band.

There are places where the orchestra goes from loud to near silence while the violin is coming from the opposite direction. Where the two intersect, the handoff was seamless. Lovely melodies wrapped up in perfect intonation and a velvet tone were released into the hall with breathtaking delicacy.

Elsewhere, however, she dug into the loud parts with a fury, carving them up and tossing them out to the audience as if to say, "Well, what do think about this?" The consensus was an extended standing ovation.

Petrenko got the same treatment after the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. He is only 33, and with his close-cropped brown hair he looks about half that. He cuts an elegant figure on the podium. From the back, his long coat looks like tuxedo tails, but from the front, over a black shirt, it looks like a trench coat that is too big for him.

His hands and long fingers floated above his head, tracing delicate motions as if he were under water. Almost every entrance, however minor, was signaled by a raised finger here or a twist of the wrist there; his left hand would wrap itself around a phrase to dial up a section of the orchestra.

As in Elgar's "Cockaigne Overture," which opened the program, Petrenko was in complete technical command of the score, as was the orchestra. Every section performed flawlessly, with the French horns first among equals.

There were occasions, especially in the first movement, that were merely loud when they should have been intense. Phrases meant to convey an anguished cry were not given enough breathing room to exhale fully before moving on.

But let's just chalk this up to a lack of seasoning at the beginning of what looks to be an impressive career.