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Opening program will showcase all parts of the symphony

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2012 - Few pieces of music conjure young children at play, brave soldiers at war and dancing whales at sea. But then few composers have mastered the art of musical poetry as has Ottorino Respighi.

The 20th-century Italian composer distinguished himself by creating a lyrical trilogy of tone poems — “Fountains of Rome,” which debuted in 1917, “Pines of Rome,” which followed in 1924, and “Roman Festivals,” 1929.

Each an individual expedition into sound and imagery, they are at once a collective love song to Rome, as well an opportunity for the composer to enable his audience to experience the full breadth and depth of a symphony at its best and most dramatic.

His “Pines of Rome” will surely capture the imagination of its audiences this weekend as the St. Louis Symphony kicks off its 2012-13 season beginning Friday, Sept. 28 with two performances and running through Sunday, Sept. 30.

“Pines of Rome” and the rest of the program will allow Symphony Music Director David Robertson and his gifted musicians to showcase a range of tonal hues from playful to elegant to glorious. In addition to “Pines,” the program features Witold Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” as well as the virtuosity of pianist Emmanuel Ax’s rendition of Frederic Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 2.” It promises to be a musical evening full of sound and fury signifying something.

For Disney aficionados, “Pines” will evoke the image of animated whales twirling and flying in “Fantasia” (That part of “Fantasia” can be seen on YouTube). For others, it will be a journey from childhood games to military glory.

“Pines” allows the imagination of the audience to take flight. Respighi pays homage to the beauty of nature, the innocence of youth and the gallantry of war. It is grand and subtle in turns and poignant in its instrumental arrangement. Originally the work called for six buccinae, the trumpets and trombones of medieval days.

While the work follows an uncomplicated structure, it challenges each section and, by extension, each musician, with its labyrinth of notes.

Listeners may forget this is a 20th century piece until they hear the recording of the nightingale in the third movement, something the composer insisted must be used, despite his best efforts to replicate it through the winds.

Though he acknowledged that his audience might not approve of or appreciate his efforts, Respighi maintained his vision. “Let them boo,” he famously predicted as he prepared for the debut. “What do I care?”

At the premier in 1924 in Rome, the audience initially reacted as he expected, with boos. But by the end of the concert, sentiments had turned, and the composer received a standing ovation.

This weekend’s program, following the successful European tour, can be seen as celebratory. “It is a very festive way to begin the season,” Maestro Robertson said.

The brevity of the “Pines” underscores its majesty and allows for complementary pieces and performances, he said, noting that he took the opportunity to bring a bit of a surprise to this concert with “Concerto for Orchestra” by Lutoslawski. This Polish composer, who survived the German occupation of his homeland during World War II, created a body of work based on folklore music from his homeland. In this piece, he adds a piano, two harps and tambourine to the symphony. It echoes the folk traditions of Poland in a sort of neo-baroque rendering.

Robertson rounds out the evening with Ax’s performance of Chopin, a showstopper the director said he definitely wanted to bring to Powell.

While working with the world-renowned pianist on a series of performances with the Israeli Philharmonic, Robertson said he decided that his artistic interpretation of the Chopin was something that St. Louis audiences simply must hear.

“We performed that piece 12 times — he brings such a depth to it,” Robertson recalled, “and at the end of it, I said, ‘Manny, I have to have you perform that in St. Louis’.”

Robertson holds back from labeling anything as perfect, but he acknowledges that Ax’s performance is undeniably strong.

“I hate superlatives in music,” he said. “But I have to say, you will never hear anything better.”