Violinist James Ehnes. Photo courtesy of the SLSO.

Location, location, location. It’s the real-estate agent’s mantra. And also, as it happens, a possible theme for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday night (January 28th).

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

Stéphane Denève and the SLSO curtain call

That is, at least, what Music Director Stéphane Denève suggested in his pre-concert remarks and, upon reflection, I’d say his point is well taken. The opening work, James Lee III’s “Visions of Cahokia,” is directly inspired by the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site just across the river in Illinois. Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)” also hearkens back to an ancient civilization—specifically Athens in the late 4th century BCE. And the 1902 Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius evokes the darkness of the majestic, windswept Finnish landscape, at least for me.

Interestingly, Maestro Denève also hears echoes of the northern Italian coastal town of Rapallo, where the composer began work on the symphony in 1901. At the same time, conductor Robert Kajanus, who first recorded the symphony in 1930, saw the Symphony No. 2 as a musical depiction of Finland’s struggle for independence. Which just goes to show you that a great work of art can mean more than one thing.

However you hear the Sibelius Second, I’d say you heard a darn fine performance of it last weekend. The composer’s use of silence can sometimes make his symphonies feel episodic, but I never got that sense from Denève’s approach, which always kept a sense of momentum, assisted by subtle shadings of tempo and dynamics.

The orchestral playing was of its usual high order—a thing of great importance in a work that often highlights individual sections of the band for long stretches of time. The big, warm horn passages and dance-like themes of the flutes contributed greatly to the expressive first movement, while the nuanced string pizzicatos and the ominous tone of the bassoon melodies in the second movement gave it a sense of gravitas. The skittering string motifs of the third movement stood in sharp contrast to the more lyrical trio section, with its oboe solo accompanied by the clarinets and horns. And the triumphant conclusion of the fourth movement gave the expanded horn and brass sections a chance to really strut their stuff.

James Lee III and Stéphane Denève

Lee’s “Visions of Cahokia” also allowed individual sections and players to shine. Lee has, as I have noted in the past, serious skills as an orchestrator and an impressive ability to summon a strong sense of time and place in his music. The bird calls of the flutes and use of exotic percussion instruments like the rain stick contributed to a sense of mystery and wonder in the second movement (titled “Na Yimmi,” the Choctaw word for “faith”) and the explosions of brass and percussion in the third movement colorfully evoke the games and celebrations of the Mississippian culture that flourished here from roughly 800 to 1600 CE.

That said, I’m a bit ambivalent on his use of rhythmic cliches to suggest Native American music. The combination of shaken bells and an obsessive four-note drum figure with the accent on the first beat (ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four) has, perhaps, been a bit over-used in both the concert hall and movie theatre. I was reminded the works of so-called “Indianist” composers like Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881–1946) and Arthur Farwell (1872–1952) in the early 20th century.

Still, “Visions of Cahokia” has a dramatic impact that can’t be denied. And it certainly got a rousing performance from Denève and the orchestra. Lee’s music artfully combines a distinctly contemporary harmonic palette with an approachability that was sadly absent from a great deal of “new music” in the last century. It’s good to see this sort of thing being championed by Denève.

The first half of Saturday night’s concert closed with the Bernstein “Serenade,” in the exceptionally capable hands of violin soloist James Ehnes. Ehnes is, as I observed in his previous appearances here, a performer whose solid technique and artistic insight do not come wrapped in the kind of flashy package of some other violinists. He strikes a more conservative figure on stage but, as he demonstrated in the rambunctious Allegro molto vivace finale of the fifth movement of the “Serenade,” he’s fully capable of throwing himself into the music with physical abandon when it’s appropriate to do so.

Stéphane Denève and James Ehnes

With Denève and the orchestra as his sympathetic partners, Ehnes gave us all the wide emotional range of Bernstein’s music, from the warmth of the Allegretto second movement, to the short, spiky Presto of the third and the passionate slow burn of the Adagio fourth. The latter tapers off into a delicate duet between the violin and harp, nicely done by Ehnes and Principal Harp Allegra Lilly.

There was an equally compelling moment in the dramatic Molto tenuto first section of the fifth movement, in which the violin and cello have an intimate duet that possibly reflects the dialog between Socrates and the seer Diotima in Plato’s text. Ehnes and Principal Cello Danny Lee infused it with a passionate intensity Saturday night.

Finally, let me not fail to praise Principal Tympani Shannon Wood and the SLSO’s percussion section. The members of the latter were kept extremely busy in both the “Visions of Cahokia” and the "Serenade." The Bernstein, in particular, requires five players dashing to and fro among a variety of instruments, including the xylophone, marimba, and tubular bells in addition to the usual battery of drums; quite a workout.

Next at Powell Hall: Norman Huynh conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Concert.” As with all these movie events, the orchestra plays the score live to accompany the film on the big screen. Showings are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, February 3–5. The regular season returns Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 8 pm, February 10 and 11, as James MacMillan conducts the orchestra along with violinist Nicola Benedetti and SLSO Principal English Horn Cally Banham in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture,” Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini,” and MacMillan’s own Violin Concerto No. 2 and “The World’s Ransoming.”

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