Violinist Tessa Lark. Photo courtesy of Tessa Lark.

Two weeks ago The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra got hit with what must be every professional orchestra’s headache: the sudden cancellation of a featured soloist due to illness. What made it a full-on migraine was the fact that the soloist, violinist Nicola Benedetti, was scheduled for a two-week residency during which she would play two violin concertos written for her and first performed by her: one by James MacMillan (who also conducted the first of the two concerts) and one by Benedetti’s husband Wynton Marsalis.

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

For the February 10th and 11th concerts the SLSO elected to substitute Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture rather than engage a new soloist on such short notice. This past weekend (February 18th and 19th), with SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève at the podium, there was both a replacement soloist—the Grammy-nominated Tessa Lark—and not one but two works for violin and orchestra: the “Poème” Op. 25 by Ernest Chausson (1855–1899) and “Tzigane” by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937).

The bad news is that we’ll have to wait until a future date to see Benedetti perform both works live with the SLSO. The good news is that Lark’s performance was stunning and that the substitutions resulted in a program entirely by French composers that was also international in scope.

Allow me to explain.

It began with the “Marche écossaise sur un théme populaire” (“Scottish march on a popular theme”) by Claude Debussy (1862–1918). Originally written for two pianos and later orchestrated by the composer, the “Marche ecossaise” was commissioned by a man Debussy believed to be a Scottish General but who was, in fact, an American diplomat. In any case, this entertaining if trifling mix of the Gallic and the Caledonian is great fun to hear, especially when preceded by a performance of the original march by local bagpipe virtuoso Chris Apps.

Chris Apps

Decked out in traditional Highland gear, complete with beret and kilt, Apps cut a striking figure as he walked on stage Sunday afternoon to deliver a rousing rendition of the tune. Hearing that tune it its original form enhanced the pleasure of listening to Debussy’s transformation of it. Starting as a march and ending with a jig, it all sounds more like Delius than Debussy—especially in the calme (meno tempo) interlude—but that made it no less enjoyable.

Things became more lyrical with the entrance of Lark for Chausson’s “Poème.” Inspired by a Turgenev novella, the Poème” is a work of otherworldly beauty, and Lark’s intensely Romantic performance perfectly captured that. The slowly dying trills that end the Poème were especially effective, as were the two cadenzas the composer provided to showcase the soloist.

Next, Lark had a chance to demonstrate her technical prowess in Ravel’s “Tzigane.” Inspired by the playing of the Hungarian-born violinist Jelly d’Arányi, “Tzigane” is an outrageously difficult piece. The slow, smoldering romanticism of the opening eventually gives way to a wildly energetic finale that will test the skill of the best violinists. Lark proved more than equal to both the intense passion of the long solo introduction and the wild, fiery finale. If you missed her performance last weekend, never fear: classical radio station WQXR has provided a YouTube video of her playing the original violin and piano version.

The second half of the program consisted of two popular orchestral blockbusters: Debussy’s sunny “Ibéria” and Ravel’s apocalyptic “La Valse.” This is music that Maestro Denève clearly knows well—he conducted both without a score—and clearly loves. I know I loved what he did with both of them and, judging from the response, so did the audience.

Tessa Lark and Stéphane Denève
Photo: Chuck Lavazzi

Although Debussy never spent more than a few hours in Spain, he nevertheless had plenty of exposure to Spanish music and dance. That, and his imagination, were all he needed to conjure up this Ivesian collage of day and night in the town of San Sebastián, just a few miles from the Spanish-French border. It’s colorful music with constantly shifting melodic and harmonic perspectives, rather like a French “New Wave” film.

That means there is a plethora of opportunities for individuals and whole sections to move in and out of sonic focus. A few examples include the languorous oboes and English horn in the second movement (“The Fragrances of the Night”), the solo by Concertmaster David Halen in the third movement (“The Morning of a Festival Day”), and the piquant sound of the strings in the first movement (“In the Streets and Byways”). Debussy subdivided the first and second violins into multiple groups here, producing an unusually complex sound.

The way the entire orchestra seems to breathe in a dreamlike state during the second movement is also impressive. The SLSO hasn’t played this music since 1997, but under Denève’s direction they performed with their accustomed precision.

This weekend's concerts concluded with Ravel's “La Valse,” a work that began in 1911 with the title “Wein” (“Vienna”). Before it could be completed, however, World War I (in which the composer served as an ambulance driver) intervened, and by the time it premiered in 1920 it had become something far more profound. Beginning in darkness at the very bottom of the orchestra, “La Valse” rises to what at first seems to be a gleaming homage to the 19th century Vienna of the Strauss family. Over the course of the next ten minutes or so, though, it becomes less joyous and more frenzied. The violent, crashing finale has always made me think of a huge, ornate machine spinning faster and faster until it hurls itself to pieces.

Denève last conducted “La Valse” with the SLSO in 2018, shortly after his appointment as Music Director. Back then I called his performance “dramatic, subtly shaded, and exceptionally effective.” It was certainly all of that Sunday afternoon, with the hushed opening (basses playing pianissimo and muted) starting in the near silence Denève achieved by holding the first downbeat until everyone had settle down and stopped coughing. From there the inexorable build to the frankly horrifying conclusion was masterfully done and beautifully played.

Denève, in his pre-concert remarks, described “La Valse” as “dancing on a volcano…which, I guess, means a lot today.” I can’t disagree. I was reminded, not for the first time, of Barbara W. Tuchman’s “The March of Folly.” Sometimes, it seems, the dance macabre can be a waltz.

Next at Powell Hall: The regular season takes a break for some “one of” concerts. Kevin McBeth conducts the orchestra, the IN UNISON Chorus, and soloist Kennedy Holmes in a “Lift Every Voice: A Black History Month Celebration” on Friday, February 24 at 7:30 pm. Brent Havens conducts the orchestra and vocalist Nick Adams in “The Music of the Rolling Stones” on Saturday the 25th at 7:30 pm. And Stephanie Childress conducts the SLSO Youth Orchestra on Sunday the 26th at 3:00 pm in “Music Without Boundaries,” an immersive 45-minute concert for children ages 5–10. Soloists include Rulin Olivia Zhang (erhu), Amir Salesevic (accordion), and the UMSL Percussion Ensemble under Matthew Henry.

The regular season resumes Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 10:30 am, March 3 and 4, as Stephanie Childress conducts the orchestra in music of Haydn, Schumann, and Oswald Huỳnh.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter