Last Friday night (February 2)  Stéphane Denève conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) and violin soloist Augustin Hadelich in music by Valerie Coleman (b. 1970), Samuel Barber (1910–1981), and Florence Price (1887–1953). It was a truly memorable concert and a demonstration of the strength that comes from diversity, consisting of works by two black women and a gay man.

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

The concert opened with a glorious performance of Coleman's 2019 "Umoja: Anthem of Unity." Originally a short piece for female choir titled simply “Umoja” (the Swahili word for “unity” and the first of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa) this little musical acorn has now grown into a brilliantly orchestrated oak of a tone poem. It begins with the modest, Celtic-sounding main theme played softly by flute and violin (nicely done by Principal Flute Matthew Roitstein and Associate Concert Master Erin Schreiber) over the otherworldly sounds of bowed percussion (marimba, xylophone, and the like adeptly played by Will James, Alan Stewart, and Kevin Ritenauer). Over the next fifteen minutes or so it goes through a series of variations until building to a triumphant call for unity in the brass and percussion before returning to the quiet serenity of the opening.

L-R: Augustin Hadelich and Stéphane Denève
Photo by Chuck Lavazzi

Under Denève’s sympathetic direction, it emerged as one of the most uplifting and inspiring pieces I have heard in some time, and one I hope we hear more often from now on.

Barber's dramatic Op. 14 Violin Concerto got a highly expressive and technically brilliant performance by Hadelich ably supported by Denève and the orchestra. Hedelich’s intense emotional commitment to the music was apparent from the beginning of the Allegro first movement in both the sweetly nostalgic statement of the first theme and his powerful handling of the subsequent drama that pervades the rest of the movement. Both he and Denève were on the same quietly elegiac page in the following Andante (including a lovely solo by Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks) and delivered the hair-raising fireworks of the Presto in moto perpetuo finale with stunning precision.

That last movement isn’t just an Olympian exercise for the soloist. The members of the orchestra are called upon to inject a plethora of short, tricky motifs all the way through, so the entire ensemble has to work closely as a team. They did so perfectly under Denève’s leadership, providing yet another manifestation of the theme of unity.

The standing ovation that followed was, of course, inevitable but it was also completely justifiable. Hadelich responded with an unexpected and delightful encore: his own virtuoso arrangement of the Robert Shafer/Randy Howard version of the traditional “Wild Fiddler’s Rag.”

The evening concluded with a powerful performance of Florence Price’s remarkable Symphony No. 3. Premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it made Price the first African American woman to see her work performed by a major symphony orchestra.

When I first heard this work last July at Bravo Vail, I recall finding Price’s approach to traditional structures like sonata form to be somewhat episodic, but after Friday night's wonderfully coherent reading by Denève I am obliged to take that all back. The mix of traditional African American elements with modernist dissonances, whole-tone passages, and Wagnerian brass chorales no longer sounded disconcerting. The echoes of Dvořák and traditional spirituals in the second movement kept harmonious company and the bits of sly humor in the third movement Juba dance were just right. The wild, turbulent, and dissonant Scherzo last movement brought it all to a rousing close.

Denève and the SLSO have, in short, demonstrated that the Symphony No. 3 is a genuine masterpiece. He said it needs to be heard more often and I couldn't agree more. Judging from the enthusiastic audience response, that shouldn’t be a hard sell.

If you missed this concert, never fear. It was recorded and will shortly be available for streaming for a limited time at the SLSO website.

Next from the SLSO: On Wednesday, February 7, at 7:30 pm Concertmaster David Halen leads members of the orchestra in a chamber music evening at the Sheldon Concert Hall. On the program: Florence Price’s Andante cantabile from the String Quartet No. 2, the world premiere of “The Art of Dreaming” by Robyne Sieh, Ravel’s String Quartet in F major, and Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major.

On Thursday, February 8, at 7:00 pm, the Washington University Department of Music and musicians of the SLSO team up for “Untold Stories: LGBTQ+ Composers through Time,” a unique narrated performance that introduces stories of composers from the LGBTQ+ community over the last 1,000 years. The concert takes place at the 560 Music Center in University City.

On Saturday, February 10, at 7:30 pm Norman Huynh conducts a special Lunar New Year program with the SLSO and soloists Rulin Olivia Zhang (erhu), the CECC dragon dance team, and the Thunder Drum team. The program includes music by Li Huanzhi, Tan Dun, Ravel, and Stranisnky and takes place at Lindenwood University's J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts.

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