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Orchestras on the rise make their pitch. Saint Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh ensembles visit New York

It has become common usage to divide the American orchestras into the ``big six'' followed by the smaller-city ensembles, and finally the regionals. But that is all changing. Nowadays, there is no guarantee that the Saint Louis Symphony, once designated second-string, will not play better than the Boston Symphony Orchestra on any given night. Thus, the term ``top six'' - Boston, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles - is less and less valid.

This season, New York has been visited by several orchestras that have always been considered good - Saint Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh - and by Milwaukee, which has gained tremendously in stature over the past decade.

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I wish I could speak better of the Pittsburgh performance of Berlioz's ``La damnation de Faust'' heard early last winter in Avery Fisher Hall. Curiously, Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit proved subdued in a score that needs great theatrical outbursts. Because he and the orchestra seemed not to be communicating all that well, the playing was not top-drawer Pittsburgh.

I heard the remaining orchestras in Carnegie Hall, which, since the interior restoration, has caused problems for many orchestras if the music director has not done his homework. Perhaps this was why the Milwaukee Symphony sounded less than glamorous. The string section is clearly not the plushest around, and the horns were not having a very good night. Granted, the orchestra is still in a major growth period and is beginning to get used to its new music director, Zdenek Macal.

There was much to admire, however, in the way the orchestra tackled the major work on the program, Mahler's First Symphony. The rough-and-tumble burrs on the various sections were used to advantage by Mr. Macal, in a performance that had drive and an interesting ominous tone.

Also on the program was Dvorak's Violin Concerto in a distressingly unsatisfying performance by Shlomo Mintz, whose passing intonation problems and generalized approach threatened to overwhelm Czech-born Macal's confident way with the music. Therefore the performance lacked fire and passion.

Passion checked by an agreeable intellect is what makes Gunther Herbig such an interesting musician. He appears to have had some impact on the Detroit Symphony since he took it over in 1984. Together they played a rewarding, well thought-out, and generally imposing Bruckner Eighth for the closing part of the ambitious program heard this past winter. The orchestra makes up in discipline what it lacks in sheer stamina; Mr. Herbig gets it to play like a fine central European ensemble.

The first part of the program was devoted to the New York premi`ere of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Piano Concerto. This work was commissioned jointly by the American Symphony Orchestra League, the Detroit Symphony, and Carnegie Hall, to be performed by the winner of the 1985 Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition, who turned out to be Marc-Andr'e Hamelin.

As with Miss Zwilich's First Symphony, the concerto has the underpinnings of tonality, full of some almost-pretty moments, and lots of not-quite melodies that fit together as an impressive sound picture rather than as a progressive composition. Mr. Hamelin played with conviction and dedication, but as to his versatility and interpretive mettle, only future hearings will be able to give any sure indication.

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Interpretive mettle is something John Browning has in abundance when he is playing the Barber Piano Concerto. He premi`ered the work in New York nearly 25 years ago and has championed it ever since. He brought it to town again earlier this month, when the Saint Louis Symphony came for a visit. Few 20th-century artists have been so fortunate as to have such a magnificent work written for them, and Mr. Browning has yet to indicate in his playing of it that the concerto is anything less than a constantly challenging masterwork.

The program, conducted by music director Leonard Slatkin, opened with a sprightly, uncommonly elegant yet humorous account of the Haydn's 67th Symphony (F major). Unfortunately, the strings sounded muffled here as well as in the concluding Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. Mr. Slatkin, even more than in his recent RCA recording, takes a pastoral view of the piece, striving for a serenity interrupted by storms rather than for the ferocious despair that has become the norm these days.

For Slatkin, the third movement Largo is clearly the germinating force for the entire symphony. Everything leads up to and works away from it. Slatkin argued his viewpoint persuasively. By performance's end, one emerged with a new view of Shostakovich and an appreciation for the remarkable work Slatkin has done with the orchestra.

The Saint Louis Symphony plays with an elegance rare in American orchestras, and the tonal sheen, or at least what could be heard of it in Carnegie, particularly in the suave winds and warm brass, is beguiling. A few more years of playing on this level, and there will be no question that either we'll be talking of the ``big seven'' or else one of the ``six'' will have to be displaced in favor of Saint Louis.

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