Stéphane Denève conducting

In an interview last week, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Designate Stéphane Denève observed that "nobody should ever conduct music that he or she doesn't believe in. Because music is about passion." You could hear that kind of deep emotional commitment in the program he conducted last weekend with the orchestra (February 8-10).

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

When I reviewed Mr. Denève back in 2011 I described him as a very charismatic conductor who takes an obvious joy in his work. You could see and hear that joy from the very beginning Sunday afternoon as Mr. Denève conducted a version of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" that positively sparkled with good cheer, beautifully shaped orchestral details, and displayed an ideal combination of lyricism and classical restraint. The symphony strings sounded wonderful--silky and luminescent.

There is plenty of joy as well in the work that concluded the concerts, the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 72, by Brahms. Written during an escape from the hurly-burly of Vienna to the little town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee during the summer of 1877, the symphony is undoubtedly one of the most cheerfully bucolic things the composer ever wrote. "It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine, and cool green shadows," observed Brahms's friend Theodore Billroth upon playing through the score for the first time. "How beautiful it must be at Portschach."

It was certainly beautiful enough on the stage at Powell Hall Sunday, as Mr. Denève's interpretation captured all of the happiness Brahms must have felt in his beloved countryside. The hushed, lyrical introduction of the Allegro non troppo first movement contrasted nicely with the high drama later in that movement. The Adagio non troppo second movement radiated warmth, and the Allegretto grazioso was filled with good humor. The Allegro bon spirito finale--surely one of the sunniest ever composed--came to a properly blazing conclusion with spectacular work by the horn section under Principal Roger Kaza, who also turned in some fine solo work during the piece.

This weekend's performances of the Brahms were recorded for future CD release, so Mr. Denève was obliged to wait for complete silence before starting each movement. At least on Sunday, he got it fairly consistently, demonstrating that we all can, when necessary, keep our coughing and shuffling to a minimum.

SLSO Chorus Director Amy Kaiser

The best part of the program for me, though, was the double dose of Vaughan Williams that closed the first half of the concert: "The Lark Ascending" and the "Serenade to Music" played attacca--one right after the other, without pause. They're both lovely works, but joined together this way they combined to produce one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard at Powell Hall.

Begun in 1914 but not completed until after World War I, "The Lark Ascending" is a brief romance for violin and orchestra in which the violin takes on the role of the bird in the George Meredith poem that inspired the composition. The violin in featured prominently as well in the "Serenade to Music," a work for sixteen solo singers and orchestra that sets to music some lines from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" about the joy of music.

Many have seen both Meredith's poem and the work it inspired it as a metaphor for the soul's climb to heaven, expressed musically in the way the work's lovely melody floats and, in the end, slowly fades into silence as it makes its final ascent. Mr. Denève is one of them. In remarks from the stage, he said he sees the "Serenade to Music" as a logical companion to "Lark" because "I like to think souls return to us on waves of music." So the real logic for joining the two works is as much philosophical as it is musical.

The important thing is that it worked both intellectually and emotionally. The transition from the final ascent of Concertmaster David Halen's solo at the end of "Lark" to the first notes of the warm and engaging solo that opens the "Serenade" felt completely right. The ethereal beauty of the first work nicely set off the more contemplative serenity of the second. It was all incredibly moving, especially when the entire vocal ensemble sang of how the "[s]oft stillness of the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony."

Here, once again, Mr. Denève showed a real love for the music, perfectly shaping the performances and drawing flawless singing and playing from all concerned. The members of Amy Kaiser's chorus all delivered their solo lines beautifully and with great clarity. And a special shout-out is due Associate Principal Horn Thomas Jöstlein for his work here, particularly during the many duet passages with Mr. Halen, who played with his usual consummate skill.

The SLSO has been referring to this as the "engagement" season between the orchestra and Mr. Denève, who assumes the role of Music Director officially this fall. If so, it has clearly been successful, as both the audience and the musicians appear to love him. In this week before Valentine's Day, that only seems right.

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with pianist Yefim Bronfman and mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, February 15 and 16. The all-Prokofiev program consists of a suite from the ballet "Cinderella," the Piano Concerto No. 2, and the cantata "Alexander Nevsky." Mr. Denève also conducts the orchestra in the "Cinderella" suite in a Family Concert on Sunday at 3 pm, February 17. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.

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