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Review: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson, Gil Shaham, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Even through its recent period of artistic and financial upheaval, the St. Louis Symphony has remained a fine orchestra with the potential for great music making. What it needed was a distinctive character and personality, which its current partnership with Music Director David Robertson seems to be providing.

That, at least, was the impression left by a pair of largely splendid concerts presented in Davies Symphony Hall over the weekend, as part of the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers Series.

The concerts were brilliantly programmed, with a canny mix of standard repertoire and new work, including the first local performance of John Adams' darkly evocative "Doctor Atomic" Symphony. They featured no fewer than three solo turns by violinist Gil Shaham (who is, among other things, Robertson's brother-in-law).

But the most striking aspect of the weekend's appearances was how simpatico Robertson and the orchestra seem to be, and how successfully they are forging a unified interpretive style.

It's a profile based in buoyant textures, quickly responsive rhythms and lithe, expressive rhetoric. Those have always been the hallmarks of Robertson's approach as a conductor, and it's exciting to hear him work with an orchestra evidently steeped in those qualities.

Profoundly human

Perhaps nothing in the weekend's concerts made the point as clearly as Saturday's beautiful account of Sibelius' Seventh Symphony. This was a vibrant and downright sunny rendition, one that charted its way through the work's unbroken span without making any of it sound portentous or problematic.

Caviling naysayers might have called this a lack of profundity, I suppose, but the effect was in fact profoundly humanizing. The strings offered fleet-footed playing, transparent but plush, and Robertson managed the symphony's shifting sequence of tempos and moods with masterful understatement.

Framing that piece on Saturday were "Rapture," a beguiling 12-minute tone poem from 2000 by Christopher Rouse, and Adams' wondrous orchestral paraphrase of his 2005 opera about Oppenheimer and the making of the atomic bomb.

Robertson and the orchestra recorded the work last year, and it sounded, if anything, even more dramatically forceful in live performance, from the huge, glowering chords that open the piece to Adams' delicate re-scoring of the opera's memorable melodic material. The great setting of Donne's "Batter My Heart," which concludes Act 1, was played with wordless, plangent grace by principal trumpeter Susan Slaughter.

Shaham got into the spirit of things Sunday night with an ebullient account of Stravinsky's Violin Concerto (that concert also included Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 2 and Stravinsky's "Danses concertantes," which I was compelled to miss).

Infectious eagerness

Like Robertson, Shaham is capable of a wonderful eagerness, and the governing spirit in this performance - "Hot damn, isn't this fun?" - proved infectious, especially in contrast to his oddly restrained and inexpressive account of Prokofiev's Second Concerto the night before.

Mozart's "Linz" Symphony was the Sunday-night closer, a reminder of the kind of sorcery that Robertson can effect even in familiar repertoire. Every measure and phrase had a sense of purpose and direction, yet the entire piece sounded as light-footed and elegant as one could wish.