Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Carmina Burana. Photo by Virginia Harold, courtesy of the SLSO

Last Saturday night (February 17) Stéphane Denève took a few minutes before giving the downbeat to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) to ask the audience to applaud less.

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

Sounds odd, yes? But this was not going to be your ordinary concert. Both the first and second halves of the evening consisted of pieces that were played attacca—that is, without breaks for applause. In the second half—which consisted of the wildly popular “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff (1895–1982)—that was because the score demanded it. The first half, though, was an experiment in creating what Denève called a “virtual symphony” out of three very different works by three very different composers.

The St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Photo: Brendan Batchelor

“Life,” observes Denève in the concert’s program notes, “starts and ends with nothingness. Music is the same: from silence to silence.” True to his word, he began the concert with a long pause for silence before giving Principal Percussionist Will James the cue for the three soft strikes of the chime that begin the 1977 "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten" for strings by Arvo Pärt (b. 1935).

The violins then enter softly while the chime continues to sound, slowly increasing in volume as more strings are added. The music reaches an ecstatic climax on an A minor chord that abruptly stops, leaving only the fading overtones of the chime.

I have heard this many times on recordings, but this was my first live performance and therefore my first opportunity to appreciate what a challenge this is for the percussionist. James had to increase the intensity of each strike of the chime ever so slightly as the music gradually built to its apex over seven minutes. That required a good ear, fine muscular control, precise cueing from the conductor, and sensitive playing by the strings.

Needless to say, all of that was present on Saturday night. Denève constructed a neat bit of sonic architecture and allowed those final chime overtones to linger just long enough before plunging headlong into the sturm und drang opening of “Icarus” by contemporary Russian composer Lera Auerbach (b. 1973).

Darryl Kubian at the theremin
Photo: Virginia Harold, courtesy of the SLSO

Like its mythological Greek namesake, "Icarus" rises to great dramatic heights. It then plummets to earth in a great descending swoop of strings, accompanied by the eerie sound of the theremin and a crash of percussion. The work concludes with a quietly elegiac section that features unearthly harmonics in the strings, the gentle sounds of the celesta and harps, and a last dying note from the theremin.

Auerbach is quoted as declaring that “all my music is abstract,” but “Icarus” nevertheless is strongly evocative of its source material, and her orchestration is as inventive as it is demanding. Every section of the orchestra got a solid workout Saturday night, with the winds and percussion being kept especially busy. There were great solo moments here as well by Concertmaster David Halen, harpists Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout, and guest artist Darryl Kubian on the theremin.

The theremin, by the way, is one of those oddball instruments whose almost-human voice you’ve probably heard before in a sci-fi or suspense movie or TV show. Miklos Rozsa featured it prominently in his score for Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller “Spellbound,” for example.  Kubian gave us a brief, entertaining introduction to his instrument at the top of the evening, complete with performances of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and, inevitably, Alexander Courage’s “Star Trek” theme. Everything I wrote earlier about the importance of fine muscle control and a good ear goes double for the theremin, which is played by moving one’s hands and fingers in the air. So kudos to Kubian and also to Denève for a compelling reading of the score.

Like Pärt’s “Cantus,” Auerbach’s “Icarus” also returned us to silence. This time it was broken by the opening notes (bass clarinet and low brass) in the concert version of the “Liebestod” (literally “love death”) from the opera “Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Here, again, we have a work that is essentially one long climax (in both the sonic and erotic sense) followed by a gentle fade to silence.

Tenor Sonnyboy Dlada

Denève’s operatic background served him well in a performance that delivered the emotional punch of that big harmonic resolution, although with just a bit less impact than I had hoped for. I’m beginning to suspect that the wider and more shallow stage space at Stifel, in combination with the hall’s somewhat dry acoustics, might make it harder to deliver the kind of visceral impact one could get at Powell. This was, in any event, another fine performance by the orchestra, with lovely solo bits from (among others) Cally Banham on English horn, Tzuying Huang on bass clarinet, and Phil Ross on oboe.

Considering how common standing ovations are at SLSO concerts, I’m a bit disappointed that more of us didn’t rise from our seats at the conclusion of Denève’s brilliantly conceived “virtual symphony.” I’m reminded of Salieri’s remark to Mozart in the film version of “Amadeus”: “Do you know you didn't even give them a good bang at the end of songs to let them know when to clap?"

There’s certainly “a good bang” at the end of “Carmina Burana,” as well as at many other points in this justifiably popular work. Based on an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries, Orff’s “scenic cantata” celebrates not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: food, drink, gambling, and (especially) sex.

Those poems also convey an important message for us today: the immense influence of blind chance on our lives. The opening and closing of the work, "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi," sets the tone for this realization by reminding us that the wheel of fortune is continuously turning, and it is unwise for any of us to become overconfident.

Soprano Ying Fang

“Carmina Burana” is mostly about the soloists and the massive, percussion-heavy orchestra. This was my first opportunity to hear the SLSO Chorus and Children’s Choirs at Stifel, and I came away mightily impressed by the clarity of the sound. Both of these ensembles were in top form as usual, and Stifel’s acoustics made it easier to hear the precisely articulated multi-lingual lyrics (Latin, Middle High German, and Old Provençal) more clearly.

As for the orchestra, the big moments had plenty of impact, and the many solos sprinkled throughout the score were done quite nicely. Andrew Cuneo’s bassoon solo in "Olim lacus colueram"—a macabre little piece about a roasted swan seen from the bird's point of view—pushed both him and tenor Sonnyboy Dlada up to the top of their ranges, and they both sounded chilling. Principal Flute Matthew Roitstein had a fine duet with Principal Tympani Shannon Wood in the trio of the boisterous “Tanz.” Matthew Mazzoni and Principal Keyboard Peter Henderson were very effective, especially with their two pianos placed downstage center in front of the podium.

The vocal soloists only have a few numbers each, but those few always have a substantial impact when performed well—as they certainly were Saturday night. Baritone Thomas Lehman sang with a perfect mix of vocal power and theatrical acumen in his several solos, from the comic intoxication of the Abbot of Cockaigne in "Ego sum abbas" to the powerful mix of passion and despair in “Estuans interius.”

Soprano Ying Fang has one of those voices that seems to float effortlessly in the air, as it did with the Children’s Choir “Amor volat undique.” Her singing in the “Cour d’amours” (“Court of Love”) numbers had a subtle sensuality, both in the solos and in the duet with Lehman towards the end of the section. I think she fudged the infamous upward glissando in “Dulcissime” a bit but sang the rest of it in wonderfully coloratura style.

Baritone Thomas Lehman

I have already noted Dlada’s impressive performance of his only solo. That bit can be played for laughs (as it was by Bramwell Tovey’s “Carmina” in 2018), but it’s so much more effective when delivered with the genuine, tragic anguish that Dlada gave it.

So, yes, this was a killer “Carmina,” conducted with that ideal mix of musical sophistication and theatrical insight I have come to associate with Denève’s performances of opera-adjacent works like this and last season’s  “La damnation de Faust.” Congratulations to all concerned, including guest choral director Andrew Whitfield and Children’s Choir artistic director Alyson Moore.

Next from the SLSO: On Friday, February 23, at 7:30 pm Kevin McBeth conducts the IN UNISON Chorus along with vocalist BeBe Winans in “Lift Every Voice,” the SLSO’s annual celebration of Black History Month. On Saturday, February 24, at 7:30 pm Steve Hackman conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and vocalists Rich Saunders, Khalil Overton, Erin Bentlage in “Brahms X Radiohead.” It’s a symphonic synthesis of Radiohead’s album “OK Computer” and Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony. Both performances take place at the Stifel Theatre downtown.

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