Violinist Hilary Hahn. Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Written by Chuck Lavazzi

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

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert last Sunday (September 24, 2023) was a special one, and not just because it was the season opener. It was also an immensely satisfying program of familiar concert favorites performed with expert flair by the orchestra and guest violin soloist Hilary Hahn. And it was the first opportunity to hear the orchestra in what was for decades its home base: The Stifel Theatre, née the Kiel Opera House.

The Stifel Theatre from the balcony

Built in 1934 and extensively renovated in 2010, Kiel was the SLSO’s home until the orchestra moved to Powell Hall in 1968. For the next two seasons it will be one of two principal venues for SLSO concerts (the other being the UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center) while Powell Hall undergoes extensive expansion and renovation. I don’t know what the revamped Powell will sound like, but I hope it will be more like the new Stifel than the old Powell.

In his introductory remarks SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève said that St. Louis is unusual in having two world-class concert halls. Based on what I heard Sunday, I have to agree. The sound of the renovated Stifel Theatre is bright, clean, and somewhat dry: rather like a good prosecco. The wider stage results in a wider soundstage with clearer separation of orchestral sections, and the less reverberant acoustics make it easier to distinguish the sounds of both individual instruments and  the soloist.

And it’s quiet. So quiet that Hahn could be sure that the softest harmonics could be clearly heard. So quiet that Denève could make use of the orchestra’s full dynamic range. So quiet, in short, that even up in the mezzanine, the merest whisper of sound could be clearly heard.

So much for acoustics. As to the music itself, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to open the season. Hahn played Mendelssohn’s first and only concerto with a perfect blend of flash and finesse. She filled the first movement with dramatic virtuosity, sang the second movement Andante sweetly, and (to quote Mr. Gilbert) went “gaily tripping, lightly skipping” through the Puckish Allegro molto vivace finale.

And she was paying attention. Even when she wasn’t playing she was deeply engaged with the music, the SLSO musicians, and Maestro Denève. When I reviewed Hahn’s Tchaikovsky concerto at Bravo! Vail in July, I noted that she and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin were in constant and friendly communication the entire time and that both were quite clearly enjoying themselves. “That sort of thing,”  I wrote, “always spreads to the audience and increases our engagement with the music.”

Judging from the enthusiastic response, Sunday’s audience appreciated the results. Hahn returned for not one but two encores, both by Bach: the lively Gigue from the Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 and the Sarabande from the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. Hahn recorded both partitas in their entirety back in 1997 for Sony.

The rest of the concert covered a wide range of music, from the overture to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (1791) to Paul Dukas’ popular “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1897), along with two symphonic poems by Richard Strauss: “Don Juan” and “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.” All four works received that combination of wide expressive range and meticulous attention to detail that has become emblematic of Denève’s style.

Stéphane Denève and Hilary Hahn
Photo: Chuck Lavazzi

“Don Juan” got things off to an energetic start as the legendary lover leapt on to the musical stage in a wild, ecstatic theme in the strings and horns. The theme reappears throughout the work, alternating with passages of romance and longing. The most notable of these appears in the long solos for oboe and clarinet in the lyrical central episode, played with great feeling by Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks and Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews.

The horn section was in particularly fine form both here and later in “Till Eulenspiegel.” The famous wide-ranging solo that opens the latter was expertly played by Principal Horn Roger Kaza. Andrew Cuneo’s bassoon section was important in “Till” as well, contributing mightily to the sense of nose-thumbing slapstick in the score. This is genuinely comic music, delivered with a wonderful sense of fun by Denève and the band.

There was much fun to be had as well in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” surely one of the most vivid bits of “tone painting” in the repertoire.  When Disney’s artists turned it into animation in the 1940 film “Fantasia” all they had to do was paint on animation cells what the composer had already painted in notes. Here the bassoon section had a genuine star turn as the sonic embodiment of the enchanted broom which quickly escapes from the control of the hapless apprentice of the title. That sequence when the supposedly smashed broom slowly groans itself back to life in the contrabassoon and bass clarinet? In the hands of, respectively, Ellen Connors and Tzuying Huang it was comedy gold.

The “Magic Flute” overture might have felt a bit out of place amidst all this tomfoolery, especially given the reverential solemnity with which Denève invested those three opening E-flat major chords, but the sheer vivacity of the fugal sections that followed were a reminder that this was, after all the, preface to one of Mozart’s more beloved comedies.

The new season continues at the Touhill Center on Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 7:30 pm, September 29 and 30, as Stéphane Denève conducts the orchestra and piano soloist Jonathan Biss in a program consisting of Beethoven’s "Coriolan Overture" and Piano Concerto No. 1 along with Unsuk Chin’s “subito con forza” and Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. The Saturday evening performance will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3. For more information, visit the SLSO web site.

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