St. Louis Conductor Leads Phila. Orchestra

Posted: July 11, 1987

St. Louis Symphony director Leonard Slatkin led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a stimulating program at the Mann Music Center yesterday evening, starting with the brief and entertaining Commedia by American composer William Bolcom.

The appearance of such a work in summer programming is emblematic of the cautious rapprochement between composers and audiences now taking place after many decades of relative estrangement. That the truce is not perfect was signaled by the empty seats of those scared away by the name of a living composer on the program.

More fools they: They missed not only an innocuously enjoyable contemporary work, but some fine violin playing and a great Dvorak symphony later in the program.

Bolcom's piece, like much of his generation's work, is a kaleidoscope of colliding historical styles - in this case a kind of imagined 18th century, with a nostalgic string trio in the background and minatory stereophonic horns at the sides. Some of the imagining seems to have been farmed out to Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss, so that the 19th century has crept in, too. And since Commedia's contemporary gestures themselves represent borrowed styles, Bolcom's "comedy" is of a very complex order. All the world's a stage, it perhaps suggests, and all the musicians - merely players.

If there was anything missable on last night's program, it was not the contemporary work, but the Wieniawski violin concerto (No. 2, if anybody's counting). Henryk Wieniawski was one of those romantic violin virtuosi who composed on the side; this concerto starts out boldly, but at the entrance of the violin solo, it degenerates into a terribly demanding, ornate but contentless display piece, with an ending as subtle as a television studio's ''applause" sign.

On hand to waste his very considerable talents on this moldy old chestnut was the 29-year-old Soviet emigre Mark Peskanov, whom one would love to hear in something of more substance. His appearance on last night's program was endowed by Isaac Stern's newly established Fredric R. Mann Young Artist Award, of which Peskanov is the first recipient.

The concert concluded with the Symphony No. 8 of Antonin Dvorak. Less well- known than the New World symphony (No. 9), the eighth is every bit as fine a work, full of striking and unexpected contrasts and couched in orchestration both bold and subtle. It is always a pleasure to hear.

Slatkin offered a broadly plangent and melodious interpretation, which unfortunately could be accomplished only at the sacrifice of much rhythmic energy and orchestral detail, especially in the woodwinds. Oddly, he rushed through some of the big moments, putting one in mind of a tour driver who refuses to stop at the scenic overlooks; but this episodic symphony is one piece that does not automatically require stringendo climaxes.

Never mind. It's great to listen to under any circumstances.

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