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By Sarah Bryan Miller
Resident conductor Ward Stare is by now familiar to St. Louis audiences for pops and Youth Orchestra performances. Friday night’s performance was his first regular St. Louis Symphony Orchestra subscription program.
He definitely has the chops to conduct at that level. Stare is a compelling figure on the podium, clear in his commands and graceful in his movements and the music still sounds good with one’s eyes closed.
The program paired two 20th-century works — Samuel Barber’s thoughtful “Second Essay for Orchestra” and music from Serge Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet” — with a Late Romantic symphony, Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 n E minor, “From the New World.”
The Barber opened the concert, and was in some ways its most completely satisfying piece, beginning in as melancholy a mode as autumn, and working its way to joy. After a couple of infelicitous moments early on, the orchestra came together strongly.
Rather than choosing one of the familiar suites from Prokofiev’s score, Stare put together his own, in the order they would be heard in the ballet. That provided a nice dramatic arc, but at a cost: “The Death of Tybalt” was composed to end Act II and cries out for applause. Since it hits at the three-quarter mark in the suite, Stare gave a spoken introduction to the suite in order to ask for silence after it.
Dvorak filled the second half. English horn Carolyn Banham played the familiar “Going home” theme beautifully, and most of her colleagues offered strong playing as well, a little scrappiness from the upper strings (early on) and the horns (sporadically) aside.
The performance deserved the huge ovation it received from the large audience. That brought an encore: No. 8 from Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances,” vividly and accurately played.