Classical
Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Stéphane Denève kicks off his first official season as Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) this week with concerts that can only be called celebratory.

The festivities start on Thursday, September 12, at 7 pm as Mr. Denève conducts the orchestra and Kevin McBeth's IN UNISON chorus in the annual "pops" program at the base of Art Hill in Forest Park. The evening includes favorites by Bizet, Bernstein, and Berlioz, along with St. Louis-themed numbers like the "St. Louis Blues March" (that's W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," not the hockey team) by long-time SLSO Pops conductor Richard Hayman, as well as a mashup of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" by Hayman and St. Louis jazz/classical keyboardist and composer Adam Manness.

The "1812 Overture" in Melbourne in 2005
en.wikipedia.org

It all concludes with a literal bang--Tchaikovsky's "1812" overture (full title: "The Year 1812, festival overture in E-flat major, Op. 49") followed by Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever," complete with fireworks. No tickets are required, although you'll probably want to bring a lawn chair or blanket for seating.

Regarding the "1812": while it's probably Tchaikovsky's Greatest Hit, the composer himself didn't think much of it. "The overture will be very loud and noisy," he wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, "but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and so it will have no artistic merits at all." Composed on commission for a concert commemorating completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the work frequently shows up in outdoor concerts like this one, where the large orchestra can be supplemented with a brass band, bells, and (where practical and not prohibited by law) cannons.

Since its 1882 premiere, by the way, the "1812" has been a subject of some artistic tinkering by conductors and orchestrators. One of the more notable arrangements is the one conductor Igor Buketoff put together for his 1968 RCA recording, which added a chorus and children's chorus to sing the lyrics of the two Russian folk melodies in the score. Will we hear the IN UNISON chorus adding to the joyful noise this Thursday? You'll have to attend to find out.

The first indoor concerts of the season take place Friday through Sunday as Mr. Denève conducts the orchestra and soloists Daniel Lee (cello) and Erin Scheiber (violin) in something else that has become an annual tradition-an evening of music by John Williams.

Mr. Williams, who turned 87 in February, is probably the best known and most frequently recorded film music composer of the last 100 years. He's certainly one of the most honored, with five Oscars, three Emmys, four Golden Globes, 23 Grammys, seven BAFTA awards, and, for all I know, a partridge in a pear tree. With 51 Oscar nominations, he is the second most-nominated individual in that award's history. His most visible work has been for blockbusters like "Jurassic Park", the first Harry Potter film, the "Indiana Jones" films, and the "Star Wars" series, but Mr. Williams's involvement with the film music business extends all the way back to his days as a jazz keyboardist and film and TV studio pianist. Remember the piano riff for "Peter Gunn"? That's him.

John Williams receiving the
2009 National Medal of Arts from President Obama

Former Music Director David Robertson is a great admirer of the music of Mr. Williams, and made an evening of his works something of a Christmas tradition locally. Moving this popular concert to the beginning of the season makes considerable programmatic sense, though, since it offers something of a bridge from the pops sounds of the Forest Park event to the first major works of the season the weekend of September 21.  Those concerts will include Debussy's "La Mer," Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, and Gershwin's "An American in Paris," along with newer pieces by Guillame Connesson, Jennifer Higdon, and Pevin Puts.

When you go, expect an evening of Williams's Monster Hits, including music from "Close Encounters," "Superman," and "Jaws". There will also be selections from the "Harry Potter" films along with music from less well known films like "Memoirs of a Geisha," "The Book Thief," and John Badham's 1979 version of "Dracula."

The SLSO has had quite a public affair for some time now with movies and movie music. Movie nights have been especially successful, with films projected on Powell Hall's massive screen while the orchestra performs the score live. The "Harry Potter" film series, in particular, appears to be a big hit, with "Half Blood Prince" and "Deathly Hallows Part 1" scheduled for the 2019/2020 season.

A bigger curmudgeon than yours truly might sneer at these blockbuster events, but there's no doubt that they help the SLSO's bottom line. And if they attract audiences who have never experienced the heady cocktail of a live orchestral performance then I, for one, am all for it.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in The Music of John Williams Friday and Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 2:30 pm, September 13-15. Performances take place at Powel Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

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