The final scene from "Dialogues of the Carmelites" at Opera Theatre, 2014. Photo by Ken Howard

In a March 2020 interview with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Stéphane Denève about the upcoming season (a.k.a. The Season That Never Was thanks to the pandemic) we talked about the number of works planned for that season which, while not new in the sense of being recently composed, were still likely to be new to the St. Louis audience because they are so rarely heard.

[Preview the music with the SLSO's commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

Florent Schmitt
By Eugène Pirou (1841 - 1909)
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Public Domain, Link

Included in that list was the work that concludes the first half of the concerts Denève conducts this weekend (October 21 and 22): the suite from the 1907 ballet “La tragedie du Salomé” by Florent Schmitt (1870-1958). Running nearly an hour and scored for a small orchestra, the full ballet has effectively fallen off the map (as has most of Schmitt’s music), but the 1910 “big band” suite Schmitt created from it has gotten more attention. I first encountered it on a 1970 LP (remember those?) by Antonio de Almeida and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. I was captivated by its (Richard) Straussian romanticism and its anticipations of Stravinsky.

“I'm very pleased,” said Denève in that interview, “because not only is it a great, exciting symphonic poem but on top of that it's very important. Because without it, there would be no ‘Rite of Spring.’ ‘La tragédie de Salomé’ was dedicated to Stravinsky and was really an inspiration for him. I wouldn't say he copied it, because it was just in the air and Stravinsky loved that piece.” Check out the recording on the SLSOs Spotify playlist and see if you don’t agree.

Schmitt himself was an interesting character: irascible, opinionated, and in the eyes of many, a collaborator with the puppet Vichy regime during World War II. How much of that latter accusation was true is a bit vague, but it probably didn’t help his reputation in the years following the war.

The concerts will open with “Testament,” the third movement of the 2014 “Vishwas” for dancer and orchestra by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail (b. 1983). In program notes on her web site, the composer writes that “vishwas (िवशवास) expresses the concept of fervent belief, or faith, in Hindi. Meera Bai, a celebrated saint-poet from 15th century India, is the quintessential embodiment of vishwas.” The highly cinematic “Testament” is inspired by the story of Meera’s devotion to the deity Krishna and how the “events of her life are shaped around her fervent devotion to this intangible but omnipresent figure.” That life ends with a hunger strike, a supernatural storm, and immolation in Krishna’s fire, all portrayed in vivid orchestral colors.

Reena Esmail
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

“Testament” isn’t available on Spotify, but there’s video performance by David Rents and the Orchestra Collective of Orange County on YouTube. The use of “bent” microtonal notes along with the prominent part for the tabla (the Indian hand drums that enjoyed a Western vogue during the 1960s) give the music a distinct Indian flavor while staying solidly within more Western harmonic boundaries.

The SLSO Chorus and Trinidadian soprano Jeanine de Bique  join the orchestra for the second half of this weekend’s concerts, which are devoted to the work of another French composer who doesn’t get the attention he deserves, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). A member of that eccentric group of French composers known as “Les Six,” Poulenc is best known for witty and somewhat neoclassical works like his Organ Concerto, Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, ballet scores like “Les Biches,” and his many pithy pieces for solo piano. Poulenc also had a more serious side, though, as revealed in his opera “La voix humaine” (a fine performance of which graced Opera Theatre’s 2021 season), his religious works, and his 1955 opera “Dialogues des Carmélites” (“The Dialogs of the Carmelites,” also presented at Opera Theatre in 2014, which is also the last time members of the orchestra played this score).

One of the composer’s religious works comes first: the 1950 “Stabat Mater,” inspired by the death of Poulenc’s friend, the French artist, fashion illustrator, and designer Christian Bérard. This setting for chorus and large orchestra of the Latin hymn “Stabat mater dolorosa” describes the suffering of Mary as Jesus is martyred on the cross. Many composers have set it to music, but few in as economical and melodically appealing a form as Poulenc.

Although it consists of twelve separate movements, Poulenc’s setting of the poem runs just around 30 minutes, with many sections lasting less than two minutes. The chorus sings almost nonstop, but the orchestra drops out now and then to let the chorus take the lead. There are also two intense passages for the solo soprano. Melodic, dramatic, and touching, the “Stabat Mater” is a remarkable work that is getting its premiere performance by the SLSO this weekend.

Francis Poulenc in 1922
Photo by Joseph Rosmand

The concerts conclude with a work that is both overtly religions and operatic. It’s the final scene from “The Dialogs of the Carmelites,” which is, as they say, based on a true story. On July 17th, 1794, the sixteen women of the monastery of the Carmel of Compiègne in France were guillotined by the revolutionary government for refusing to abandon their vows and their community. The execution is widely believed to have been instrumental in bringing about the end of the Reign of Terror ten days later.

The story of the opera centers on Blanche de la Force, a young woman so consumed with fear that she screams at shadows. In an effort to escape her dread of life, she joins the convent.

Blanche soon becomes friends with cheerful (if absurdly naïve) Sister Constance and starts to settle into convent life—only to have her world turned upside down when the Reign of Terror seizes the monastery's assets and demands that the nuns abandon their community and become ordinary citizens. They refuse, deciding instead to take a vow of martyrdom. Blanche panics and runs at the last minute but returns in the final scene to embrace death along with her compatriots.

That scene is easily the most riveting of the opera. The nuns sing "Salve Regina" as, one by one, they are led to the guillotine and executed (with an unnervingly realistic sound effect from the percussion section). The choir becomes smaller and smaller until only Blanche is left. Her death is followed by two soft, mournful chords, a final note in the low strings, and silence.

I am not a great admirer of this opera overall, but if this final scene doesn’t leave you chilled to the bone, I will be very surprised.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève returns to lead the orchestra, chorus, and soprano soloist Jeanine de Bique in a program of music by Poulenc, Florent Schmitt, and contemporary Indian-American composer Reena Esmail. Performances are Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 8 pm, October 21 and 22. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live, as usual, on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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