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The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's second "SLSO Casual Classics" series opened Friday night at Powell Symphony Hall with "Ravishing Rachmaninoff," a more-than-respectable house and a lot of energy onstage and off.
Three of the four concerts in this year's collection are to be led by resident conductor Ward Stare. On Friday night he went half-Travolta, with a black shirt worn under a white jacket, and some elegant moves on the podium.
Stare demonstrated a fine rapport with the players and a real feel for the music, particularly in the program's three examples of Russian Romanticism: the final movement from Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Piotr Tchaikovsky's "Romeo
and Juliet" Fantasy-Overture. He invested them with finely-attuned balance and mature understanding. The Tchaikovsky, in particular, got a big, sweeping finish that managed to be lush and impressive, but not overblown. All the signs indicate that this is a young conductor who's going places.
The piano soloist for the Rachmaninoff was the promising 21-year-old Natasha Paremski, in her SLSO debut. She handled all the variations with appropriate touch and style: powerful but not overpowering in the big sections, delicate but not wimpy in the lighter phrases.
The concert opened with the Scherzo from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," neatly played. The second piece in the first half was Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." Principal flute Mark Sparks owns the demanding flute solo; harpist Megan Stout did a lovely job.
Associate concertmaster Heidi Harris' violin sang sweetly as Scheherazade. The orchestra sounded tightly together through most of the evening. There were some consistently unhappy sounds from a clarinet, and a surprisingly sour brass moment marring the ending of "Scheherazade."