Stéphane Denève conducting. Photo courtesy of SLSO.

In remarks from the podium before the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert Friday night (May 10, 2019) Stéphane Denève, who takes over as Music Director in the fall, promised "a fantastic night together." I'm happy to say that he made good on that promise.

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

The concerts opened with the local premiere of the tone poem "Nyx," written in 2011 by composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The title refers to the Greek goddess of the night, a powerful figure in mythology and the mother of all the other gods, and the music undoubtedly has a kind of dark, elemental power that's extremely appealing. A joint commission by Radio France, the Barbican Centre, the Atlanta Symphony, Carnegie Hall, and the Finnish Broadcasting Company, the work is a kind of concerto for orchestra, clearly written with a virtuoso ensemble in mind. The SLSO is just that kind of ensemble, and it made the piece positively sparkle.

Salonen is a horn player, so it's not surprising that the horn section had some of the most elaborate writing, although there are also long, complex passages for clarinet. Thomas Jöstlein and the other five members of the horn section played their part brilliantly, and Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews deserves a medal of some sort for his impressive solos. Rapid, whirling passages for the high woodwinds were delivered with panache and precision, and a fanciful duet for celesta and harp was nicely done by Peter Henderson and Allegra Lilly, respectively.

In short, congratulations are in order for the entire band.

Mezzo Rinat Shaham
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

Up next was Ravel's 1903 song cycle "Shéhérazade," inspired by the protagonist of the "1001 Nights." The lyrics by Symbolist poet Tristan Klingsor (real name: Arthur Justin Léon Leclère) are a bit heavy on the kind of pulp fiction Orientalism that I associate with Sax Rohmer, but combined with Ravel's colorful and sensuous music it can be irresistible in the hands of a skilled singer.

This weekend's soloist, mezzo Rinat Shaham, is exactly that sort of singer. In a strapless pale gown, Ms. Shaham cut a striking figure on stage, but it was her complete emotional investment in the lyrics, in combination with her supple voice, that made this such a memorable performance. Ms. Shaham's extensive operatic background was evident in the way she started and remained completely in character for each of the three songs, from the wide-eyed wonder of "Asie" ("Asia"), to the longing of "La flûte enchantée," to the regret of "L'indifférent" ("The Indifferent One"). Mr. Denève led the orchestra in backing her up with some exquisite playing, including a fine solo by Principal Flute Mark Sparks in "La flûte enchantée."

The final concert of the season usually features a popular blockbuster of some sort. This year it was Hector Berlioz's 1830 "Symphonie Fantastique," a wildly imaginative piece that Leonard Bernstein once famously described as "the first psychedelic symphony in history." Inspired by the composer's own obsessive (to put it mildly) pursuit of the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, the work tells the tale a young musician who dreams about his ideal woman (first movement), pursues her at a ball (second), and then flees to the country to escape his longing (third). Overdosing on opium, he dreams he is being beheaded for her murder (fourth movement) and then literally goes to Hell (fifth), where he encounters his love for the last time, now transformed into a demon and presiding over a witches' Sabbath.

Like "Nyx," it's a genuine orchestral showpiece, with a large orchestra that includes instruments rarely heard in concerts, from the little E-flat clarinet to the coarse-sounding ophicleide (now usually replaced by the tuba) and tuned iron bells. Berlioz also asks the players to employ uncommon techniques, such as having the strings play col legno (with the wood of their bows instead of the strings) in the finale.

The musicians of the SLSO have demonstrated in the past that this music holds no terrors for them, so it's no surprise that they covered themselves with glory Friday night. Up on the podium, Mr. Denève delivered a consistently engrossing reading filled with interesting details and concluding with a downright hair raising final two movements, played attacca (in quick succession, without pause) for maximum dramatic effect. It clocked in at close to an hour--a bit long for this work--but felt much shorter.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performs this final concert of the regular season tonight at 8 pm and tomorrow at 3 pm, May 11 and 12. Post-season activity continues at Powell Hall through June, though; check the SLSO web site for details.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter