On the way home from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert this past Saturday (May 8th) my wife commented that there was a noticeable warmth to Music Director Stéphane Denève's conducting. I’d say there’s also an affection for both the music and musicians that is well-nigh irresistible.

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

"Peter and the Wolf"

Those qualities were clear before the music even began as Maestro Denève sat down on the podium next to actress and singer/songwriter Alicia Revé Like (the narrator for “Peter and the Wolf”) to chat about music, mothers, and other matters.  They each shared a song their mothers taught them, thereby providing a segue into the pair of opening works: settings of the poem "Songs My Mother Taught Me" by Antonín Dvořák and Charles Ives.

Originally written for voice and piano, the songs were performed Saturday night in arrangements by Michi Wiancko for string orchestra, with a single wind instrument taking the vocal line. Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews was the soloist in the Dvořák and Associate Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan in the surprisingly sentimental Ives. Both used their instruments to sing with a kindheartedness that was a perfect match for the music, although their placement towards the rear of the stage occasionally allowed the accompaniment to overwhelm them. Ms. Like read the English translation of the simple, sentimental poem in between the two performances, which was a nice touch.

Next was that venerable favorite, Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” which has made regular appearances in SLSO programs since 1939, only three years after its first performance by the Moscow Philharmonic. Ms. Like’s take on the role of the narrator was a perfect balance of theatricality and simplicity—fun to watch without drawing focus from the many wonderful solo performances by the members of the orchestra.

Speaking of whom, here’s a shout-out to Ms. Kaplan’s virtuoso performance as the little bird, with all the rapid “flighty” passages delivered with assurance. Percussionists Alan Stewart, Tom Stubbs, and Will James were particularly fearsome as the hunters, Mr. Andrews was a sinuous cat, Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo a comically pompous grandfather, and Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks an elegant and, in the end, somewhat mournful duck.

Mr. Denève’s interpretation showed his usual fine sense of balance and ability to bring out some of the more interesting details of the score, including Prokofiev’s periodic dips into dissonance.

The "Pulcinella" suite

Concluding the festivities was the suite Stravinsky prepared in 1922 from the score for his 1920 ballet “Pulcinella.” The suite takes a collection of tunes by the short-lived (1710-1736) Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (along with a few ohters what were mistakenly attributed to him at the time) and dresses them in the light, transparent style of Stravinsky’s early “Neoclassical” period.

Most of the performances I’ve heard in the past have given this music the kind of bright, nose-thumbing cheer associated with the ballet’s titular commedia dell’arte clown. In the program notes, though, Mr. Denève is quoted as describing the suite as “such tender and charming music,” so it’s no surprise that his approach was more on the lyrical side.

Which, as it turned out, worked just fine. The wider range of tempi allowed movements like the opening Sinfonia to really breathe and made energetic movements such as the Tarantella-Toccata and the Vivo (with its comic solo delivered with appropriate swagger Principal Trombone Timothy Myers) that much more exhilarating. Mr. Denève insured that the many solos could be clearly heard while still maintaining a cohesive ensemble sound.

There was, in short, much to love in this program.

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève returns to conduct the final concert of the season with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Second Associate Concertmaster Celeste Golden Boyer, and “Death of the Poet” for strings by contemporary American composer TJ Cole. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30, May 13-15. Only 300 tickets will be sold for each performance, and strict health protocols will be in place. For more information, visit the SLSO web site.

Meanwhile, the SLSO’s digital concert series continues with on-demand performances of a concert from last fall’s chamber music series featuring works by Debussy, Ravel, and the mightily underrated Germaine Tailleferre through May 22.

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