Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat for the SLSO.

In his comments from the podium at the start of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert on October 21, Music Director Stéphane Denève identified the non-musical theme of the evening as “love, dedication, and sacrifice.” I think it was also about the ways religion can motivate believers to become better humans. Which is easy to forget with so many examples of the opposite in the news these days.

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

The concert opened with the local premiere of “Testament,” the third movement of the 2014 “Vishwas” for dancer and orchestra by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail (b. 1983). This short tone poem paints a vivid musical picture of the devotion of 15th-century Indian poet Meera Bai to Krishna, which ended in a supernatural storm and immolation in Krishna’s fire.

Esmail mixes Indian and Western influences skillfully. 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. You could hear that in solo passages by, among others, Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks, Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews, and Associate Principal Trumpet Tom Drake, along with most of the strings. Guest artist Eric Phinney made a strong impression on the tabla, and while he was (of necessity) miked, the amplification was subtle and free of distortion.

Jeanine de Bique
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The suite from the 1907 ballet “La tragedie du Salomé” by Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was next, with its colorful orchestration and “Orientalist” touches. Schmitt’s score depicts the lurid scenario with great splashes of exotic orchestral color that would have been appreciated by his contemporary Richard Strauss, whose own setting of the Salome story is considerably more well known. Certainly it generates the kind of excitement that Strauss’s tone poems do, while still sounding characteristically French.

Denève conducted with his characteristic mix of passion and exactitude, while the orchestra played with its equally characteristic skill, including some fine solos by Dirks as well as Cally Banham on English horn. I missed the wordless offstage women’s chorus at the conclusion of the “Les enchantements sur la mer” (“Apparitions on the Sea”) section, but Dirks’s oboe was a solid replacement. The SLSO hasn’t played this since 1974 and since I didn’t see it then, I know it only from recordings. It was good to finally witness a live performance.

The SLSO Chorus and soprano Jeanine de Bique joined the orchestra after intermission for two works by a composer that is a favorite of Denève, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): the 1950 “Stabat mater” (in its first SLSO performance) and the brief final scene from the opera “The Dialogs of the Carmelites” (last played by the orchestra for the Opera Theatre production in 2014). Both of these show the more serious and deeply religious side of a composer best known for more witty and eccentric works like the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (done up nicely by the SLSO in 2018), ballet scores like “Les Biches” (ditto, in 2019), and his many pithy pieces for solo piano. It’s an aspect of his musical personality that was, with a few exceptions, mostly overlooked until recently.

The Latin hymn “Stabat mater dolorosa” describes the suffering of Mary as Jesus is martyred on the cross. Poulenc’s setting for a large orchestra and chorus is, for the most part, appropriately solemn , although there are moments when his more witty and popular sensibilities show up. The almost jovial melodies of “Quae moerebat” and “Eja mater,” for example, feel strangely at odds with the lachrymose text, as does the little comic motif for trombone and muted trumpet at the end of the latter. But that’s Poulenc for you.

The overall mood is, nevertheless, reverential—an atmosphere reinforced by the brief soprano solos in “Vidit suum,” “Fac ut potem,” and the concluding “Quando corpus.” The soprano is effectively the voice of Mary, and de Bique made these moments exceptionally moving. This was especially true of the “Quando corpus” final section, where her voice rang out clearly over the chorus.

Scott Allen Jarrett conducts the 
Bach Akademie of Charlotte
Photo by Michael Harding

For these performances the SLSO chorus was directed by guest artist Scott Allen Jarrett, who has been Director of the Bach Akademie of Charlotte since 2017. That might make him appear to be an unusual choice for a work written in the mid-20th century, but it actually makes perfect sense. Poulenc’s choral writing owes more to Mozart than to many of Poulenc’s contemporaries, and Mozart was, after all, a great admirer of Bach.

Not surprisingly, then, Jarrett got a very clean, precise, and passionate performance from the singers. The Powell Hall acoustics muddied the Latin lyrics a bit from where we sat on Friday (which makes it a pity that the Latin text was not projected along with the English translation), but when heard on the Saturday night live broadcast, everything was crystal clear. It was good to see them all wearing singers’ masks as well.

The final scene from “The Dialogs of the Carmelites” brought the concert to a dramatic and somewhat chilling end. Set during the Reign of Terror that followed the French revolution, the opera is the story of the sixteen women of the monastery of the Carmel of Compiègne. For the crime of refusing to renounce their faith, they were executed—an act of such barbarity that it’s widely believed to have been instrumental in bringing about the end of the Reign of Terror ten days later. Poulenc tells the story from the point of view of the fictional Blanche de la Force, the monastery’s newest member.

Denève emphasized the drama by having the women singing the roles of the nuns line up downstage of the orchestra. As each character was executed (with an unnervingly realistic recorded sound effect), her singer threw her head back and then dropped it to her chest. At the end, de Bique entered stage left to sing Blanche’s solo of the hymn “Veni creator spiritus” until it, too, is silenced by the guillotine. Denéve held the final silence just long enough for us to contemplate the horror.

It was a powerful performance and a disturbing reminder of the evil that is the inevitable product of ideological fanaticism, religious or otherwise. Perhaps it’s a lesson we should all take to heart.

Next at Powell Hall: Thomas Søndergård makes his SLSO debut conducting the orchestra and pianist Stephen Hough in an all-Russian concert of Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake,” Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7. Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, October 28 and 29. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live, as usual, on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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