Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra
Thursday at 8 p.m.
At Hill
Tickets starting at $10

Tomorrow night, conductor David Robertson makes his University Musical Society debut with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO). The SLSO has won six Grammys and been nominated for 56 more. It attracts some of the world’s best soloists, including Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, who has performed in more than 90 world premieres and travels with the SLSO this week to Ann Arbor. Like the New York Philharmonic earlier this season, the SLSO is set to perform a magnificent array of pieces at a world-class level.

But the SLSO isn’t just another high-end, globe-hopping musical ensemble. And David Robertson, the SLSO’s music director, is no dry old man. According to Ward Stare, resident conductor of the Symphony, Robertson is energetic, creative and charismatic both in rehearsal and in performance. He is not only fresh and original in his approach to older classics, but he also stands as a recognized expert in 20th and 21st century music. Robertson champions modern music and current composers, mixing in newer pieces with more familiar ones.

This Thursday, the SLSO will perform “Good Friday Music” from Wagner’s 1882 opera “Parsifal.” Wagner is known for his grandeur and pioneering influence on European classical music. This excerpt from his last stage performance tells the story of a knight’s quest for the Holy Grail.

John Adams’s 2001 “Guide to Strange Places,” the second piece in the program, is distinct even in comparison to the contemporary composer’s other works. The existence of fantastic pieces like it proves that classical music is not dead. Here, Adams creates a journey to a strange and wonderful world with a mix of colors and emotions, making for a powerful and unique experience.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1957 “Canto di Speranza” includes no violins, and Sibelius’s 1915 Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82, was written during a crisis in his career, balancing the modern desires of his audience and his own artistic inclinations. All of these pieces are exciting, dynamic and entirely characteristic of the SLSO.

“They have a lot of heart and a unified sound concept that is unique in orchestras today,” Stare said. “They have an identity in their sound.”

That identity comes from both a long tradition as a symphony and the new, energetic team that makes up the SLSO’s current staff. Their mission is to make classical music accessible and alive, especially through the presentation of lesser-known composers or pieces like those they will be performing tomorrow night.

To show their dedication to the general public, SLSO musicians give more than 250 free performances every year, many outside their home at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis.

“It is important to be as accessible as we possibly can be to as many people as we possibly can be,” said Stare.

The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra is prospering, offering a great number of free events in the last year. It’s hiring new staff, and its last holiday concert attracted a much larger audience than expected. Even in the midst of a recession, the SLSO has made compelling music available to the general public — often for free — and managed to make a profit at a time when other orchestras are struggling to survive.

The SLSO is bringing modern music to the fore — taking new interpretations of well-loved classics while making the whole experience attractive to a large audience. If that’s not the mark of a great orchestra, it’s hard to say what is.

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