Grégoire Pont. Photo by Israel Solorzano courtesy of the SLSO.

Five years ago, when Stéphane Denève was the Music Director Designate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), I asked him if he was thinking of using any visuals to go with the ballet scores he was planning since this was something the symphony had done successfully in the past. He said no "because as much as I love combining art forms, I'm very doubtful about the visual and the music together… Every time you have a visual which is very powerful, the music tends to become an accompaniment. And therefore it's very hard to find the right balance to make that successful."

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

Judging from the use of animation in the concerts Maestro Denève and the SLSO presented this past weekend (January 27 and 28), he has found that balance. Two out of the three works performed during the concert were accompanied by animation. When we saw the concert on Sunday afternoon the result in both cases was unquestionably successful.

The program opened with the 1912 "ballet-pantomime" "Le Festin de l'araignée" ("The Spider's Feast") by Albert Roussel (1869–1937).  Set in a garden at twilight, the whimsical scenario shows us ants grabbing a rose petal, and worms dodging praying mantises to gorge themselves on a piece of fruit dislodged by the wind. A mayfly, unable to resist the demands of her insect audience, dances herself to death.

Meanwhile, the titular spider has spun an intricate web and is lying in wait for her next meal. She traps and kills an incautious butterfly along with a pair of mantises, who have worn themselves out in a pointless duel over who was responsible for letting those worms give them the slip.  Before she can begin her feast, a dung beetle frees a mantis who deals the spider a death blow. As the night falls, the surviving insects come together to bear away the body of the mayfly in a somber funeral procession. Curtain.

Roussel's score is a tour de force of tone painting. His ants enter with a slightly silly march. The worms slither on in high strings on their way to the fruit and then wiggle off, stuffed with fruit, in the low strings. The spider mends her web with quick rising glissandi in the violins and later does a celebratory dance that echoes the "Danse infernale" from Stravinsky's "Firebird."

As Denève pointed out in his pre-concert chat, the score for "Le Festin de l'araignée" is filled with notations of the ballet's stage directions as a reminder to the conductor; "Entrée des Fourmis" ("Entrance of the ants") at rehearsal number 7. and "Danse de Papillon" ("Dance of the butterfly") at number 19, and so on. Instead of displaying static stage directions on a screen, Denève enlisted the help of French illustrator and animator Grégoire Pont to animate them. Pont's work was shown for the first time last week during a performance of the score that Denève conducted with the New World Symphony in Miami.

As you can see in Pont's Facebook sample reel, his fanciful and witty line drawings match the music perfectly. I especially liked what he did with the final bars, when a firefly, after a few false starts, finally achieves illumination, and his light changes into a crescent moon. It was (ahem) de-light-ful.

Every time Denève conducts a Roussel score for us, I'm reminded of why he has so much affection for this composer's work and how completely justified that affection is. Roussel surely deserves more attention than he has gotten over the years. The high quality of the performances his music gets from Denève and the orchestra should help to remedy that situation.

"Le Festin de l'araignée" got a sympathetic and elegant reading from Denève and the usual excellent playing from the orchestra. Associate Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan got a well-deserved nod during the curtain call for her many fine solos, and everyone else was at the top of their game.

After intermission, we leaped forward to 1942 and a suite from the ballet "Les animaux modèles" ("The Model Animals") by Francis Poulenc (1899–1963).  Denève said this work had a special place in his heart because of the ingenious way the composer, who was already part of the resistance movement, managed to sneak in Antifa messages that would be understood by his audience but would sail over the heads of the Nazis. Fascists, as we are reminded far too often, are notoriously unable to handle nuance.

The most notable example is the insertion in the fifth movement of the suite, "Les deux coqs" ("The Two Roosters") of the refrain of the 1871 Franco-Prussian war song “Alsace et Lorraine”: "Vous n'aurez pas l'Alsace et la Lorraine / Et malgré vous nous resterons Français" (roughly, "You will not have Alsace and Lorraine, and despite you we will remain French). Denève favored us with a couple of bars in his talk, which might have made it easier to spot when the trumpets let loose with it in performance. As Poulenc recalled later, "each time the trumpet started out on the tune, I couldn't help smiling."

The orchestra's spirited and incisive performance, along with Ken Page's suave readings of three of the La Fontaine fables on which the ballet is based, left the audience smiling. The rhyming translations of the fables by the late, multi-talented Craig Hill captured the satirical wit of the originals, at least based on my somewhat rudimentary French.

Denève masterfully built the slow crescendo to the somewhat musically ambiguous "Le petit jour" ("Day Break"), with its abrupt shift to darkness near the end, and brought out all the noble romance of "Le lion amoureux" ("The Lion in Love"). Poulenc's vivid portrayals of a man's two rather picky mistresses and the fight of the roosters with its reminder about the evanescence of victory (probably lost on the Germans) were sharply etched in Sunday's performance.

There was excellent playing here from the horns and brasses, especially in "La mort et la bûcheron" ("Death and the woodcutter"), and impressively precise articulation by the strings. Harpists Julie Smith Phillips and Ellie Kirk added to the richness of the sound.

The final work on the program, "Peter and the Wolf" by Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), is written for narrator and orchestra. This time around, however, the narration was replaced with the 2006 “stop motion” animated film “Peter and the Wolf” by British writer/director Suzie Templeton. Templeton's film sticks fairly close to the outline of Prokofiev's original story but embellishes it substantially and sets it in a somewhat dystopic Soviet Russia. Peter is still a hero and the wolf, especially in his animated incarnation, is still menacing. The hunters, though, are essentially thugs, Peter's animal friends are skinny and scruffy, and everyone seems to be leading a hand-to-mouth existence. It's imaginative but a bit bleak.

The music, however, remains unchanged and was played just as well as the last time I heard the orchestra perform it in 2021. Most of the soloists were also the same, including Andrew Cuneo, the Principal Bassoon who played the role of a comically pompous grandfather, and Jelena Dirks, the Principal Oboe who portrayed a mournful and (in this grittier version) unquestionably dead duck. Percussionists Will James and Alan Stewart, the Principal and Associate Principal respectively, played the fearsome hunters. Kevin Ritenauer, who was not part of the 2021 ensemble, joined them on the tympani.

Principal Flute Matthew Roitstein's bird was wonderfully light and agile—allegro and staccato with lots of grace notes, just as written. The contrast with Templeton's clumsy, broken-winged creature (who needs a balloon to stay aloft) was heavily ironic. Ditto clarinetist Steve Ahearn as the cat: musically sly and slinky in contrast with the clumsy and inept animated counterpart.

Titled "Musical Fables," the concert was an innovative approach to putting old wine in new bottles without damaging the vintage. Hats off to everyone.

Next from the SLSO: Denève conducts the orchestra and violin soloist Augustin Hadelich in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto along with the local premieres Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” and the Symphony No. 3 by Florence Price. Performances are Friday February 2 at 10:30 am and 7:30 pm, at the Touhill Center on the UMSL campus. The Friday night concert will be broadcast at 7:30 pm on Saturday on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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