L-R: Jonathan Biss and Stéphane Denève. Photo courtesy of the SLSO.

Written by Ethan Edwards

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

The St Louis Symphony Orchestra inaugurated its second concert hall for the 2023-2024 season with a rousing program Saturday evening, September 30, at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The Symphony is splitting its performances for the next couple seasons between the Touhill and downtown’s Stifel Theatre while its permanent home, Powell Hall, undergoes extensive renovations. The orchestra settled into this new venue in grand style.

Conductor Stéphane Denève opened the program with spectacular flair as he led the orchestra through Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture.” Beethoven completed this composition in 1807 for Heinrich Joseph von Collin's 1804 tragedy of the same name. The overture is essentially an early example of a tone poem, vividly depicting the moral conflict between the military leader Coriolanus’ vengeful resolve to invade his native Rome contrasted with the more tender pleadings from his mother and wife to desist.

The overture opens in C minor with a sequence of incisive chords from the full orchestra immediately answered by a turbulent rhythmic theme that persists throughout the relatively compact work. The violins, ably led by concertmaster David Halen, rendered this intricate string work with breathtaking precision. The full orchestra joins in building on this tense aggressive style to be contrasted by the lovely pleading second theme in E-flat major, primarily in the woodwinds accompanied by gentle arpeggios in the strings, representing the urgings for mercy from the contingent of women sent to beg for our tragic hero’s change of heart.

Full confession: I have to admit that prior to this performance I have always rather dismissed "Coriolan" as significantly inferior to Beethoven’s handful of other great operatic and dramatic overtures, but this performance, particularly the dazzling work of the string section, has convinced me of the tremendous strength of this work.

To add to the thrilling impact of this performance, Déneve chose to follow "Coriolan" immediately without pause by a modern composition “subito con forza” by Unsuk Chin. Chin was commissioned to compose this work for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020. She includes frequent references to Beethoven’s music, sometimes quite obviously but often more discreetly, in creating this homage to Beethoven’s revolutionary musical ideas. Among the more obvious references, which makes this such an apt coupling with "Coriolan," is that it begins with the exact incisive chords of the overture, but then quickly turns to intricate work by the added percussion section while maintaining the rapid string work so distinctive of the original work.

In a program so firmly rooted in the classical era, this modern composition nearly stood as the highlight of the evening. Chin’s deep understanding of Beethoven and her own singular voice created a work that was remarkable in its use of derivative elements yet simultaneously creating something entirely new and distinctive.

The first half of the concert was concluded with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with guest pianist Jonathan Biss at the keyboard. This entry is the first in the orchestra’s programming of all five Beethoven piano concerti during this concert season. Although being labeled “first” and performed first in SLSO’s season, this composition is actually Beethoven’s second piano concerto to be composed, probably completed in 1795, but first to be published. At this time in his career, Beethoven was focused on highlighting his own brilliant playing and this work is certainly a showcase for virtuosic technique. Composed in his early period, the concerto derives much of its spirit from Haydn and Mozart with whom Beethoven had studied.

Mr. Biss created an almost jewel-like tenderness with his touch throughout his performance, especially effective in the introspective Largo second movement in which the clarinet serves as almost a second soloist. Unusually, Beethoven scored this movement without flute or oboe, reinforcing a darker, more somber mood with the clarinet sound as the highest woodwind.

Biss’ performance was only marred by an unevenness in some of the many rapid runs and scale fragments. Perhaps a function of the challenges of settling into a new performance space, the solo piano seemed slightly to lack presence in comparison to the sparkling clarity of the orchestra. Future performances may identify this as an acoustic characteristic of the Touhill’s astonishingly tall-ceilinged concert hall or a weakness in this particular performance.

The audience responded with a rousing ovation, to which Mr. Biss offered after extensive rounds of applause with a tender reading of the first of Beethoven’s "Bagatelles," Op. 26.

After a short intermission, the program concluded with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. Schumann had been primarily known for his compositions for piano and for voice, but with his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, he embarked enthusiastically on orchestral writing, apparently based largely on his wife’s encouragement. First performed in 1841 for Clara’s birthday, the D minor symphony was not enthusiastically received. Schumann returned to the piece ten years later, making significant revisions to the orchestration, and published it in 1851 as his Symphony No. 4 (although technically, chronologically this was his second symphony). This revised version is the one most commonly performed, as it was at Saturday’s concert.

The Fourth Symphony maintains, in general, the established four-movement classical form but departs from this model in two significant ways. First, all four movements draw quite directly from the same shared musical themes. And perhaps, to reinforce this commonality, the four “sections” are intended to be played without pause, almost as if in one movement.

The effect is mesmerizing and utterly consuming. Although set in a minor key, the writing speaks of such happiness and optimism, reflecting the pleasure in his marriage. Again, the St Louis strings played with impressive precision in the rapid phrases and luscious tenderness in the lyrical sections to create a magical sonorous fanciful ride.

The Romanze was particularly evocative with a plaintive solo/duet by principal oboe Jelena Dirks and principal cellist Daniel Lee developing the falling and rising figures that opened the symphony. This tender theme was answered by a contrasting arabesque played with flair by David Halen’s solo violin. The last two movements continue to elaborate on these musical ideas and culminate in  a triumphal conclusion.

The full orchestra played with such energy and musicality under Déneve’s expert interpretation that it seems superfluous to call out individual performers. The overall impact of the program suggests that we have a wonderful set of performances to look forward to throughout the coming season.

The symphony is off to Stifel Theatre Friday and Sunday, October 6 and 8, for "The Nightmare Before Christmas In Concert" with Jason Seber conducting the Danny Elfman score to accompany Tim Buton's 1993 comedy on the big screen.  The SLSO then returns to the Touhill on October 13 and 14 with a program “Mozart and Brahms” under the baton of Cristian Măcelaru, featuring violinist Benjamin Bellman performing Mozart’s Fifth Violin concert and Brahms’ richly pastoral Second Symphony.

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