Radu Lupu
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

There's a standard formula for building a concert program containing a spiky contemporary, Serialist, or other unfamiliar piece of music: Put a really popular work just before it and a really popular work right after it. That way, the reasoning goes, audiences will have to sit and listen to it, if not necessarily enjoy it.

Not in this weekend's program by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Music director David Robertson conducted, instead, two beloved Romantic works sandwiched between compositions by Anton Webern and Alban Berg. The guy has guts.

Not that Webern's 1908 "Passacaglia," in particular, should be that tough a sell; it's brief, beautiful and relatively familiar, having been played here just three years ago. On Saturday night, Robertson took it from an almost inaudible opening and brought out its themes with skill and feeling.

Berg's "Three Pieces for Orchestra," Op. 6, from 1914, is a thornier but still effective proposition. Placed at the concert's end, it did occasion an exodus, but most of the audience stayed. Advertisement

It's a big piece, and marked by massive brass and percussion sections. The latter includes a visually and viscerally arresting giant hammer: Donner from "Das Rheingold," eat your heart out. Restless and edgy, with a complex structure, it made an exciting end to the performance.

In between came Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54, and Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, "Unfinished," D. 759. The concerto received a deliberate, intellectual treatment from soloist Radu Lupu, whose relaxed demeanor and thoughtful approach can make him seem almost detached. There was nothing impetuous here, but his playing was beautiful and accurate. Robertson and the orchestra accompanied him in kind.

The Schubert was given a nicely judged performance, graceful and lovely throughout. At the quiet ending section of the second movement some of the first violins seemed to have difficulty sustaining the very high writing, but otherwise they responded handsomely to Robertson's direction.

All was well-played throughout the concert, with fine contributions by various solo players. The St. Louisans play well for almost every conductor, but they seem to give more, to respond best, to Robertson. As he noted, Saturday night marked the eighth anniversary of his first meeting the orchestra. It's a marriage made in musical heaven.