Photo by Brendan Batchelor courtesy of the SLSO.

Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus continued their peripatetic wanderjahr last night (February 28) with a brilliantly conceived all-French program at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

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

Soprano Brenda Rae

The featured work was the Requiem, Op. 48, for chorus, soloists, and orchestra by Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924). As musical settings of the Roman Catholic requiem mass go, it’s an outlier.  Unlike the requiems of, say, Mozart or Verdi, this is music of peace and consolation rather than drama and terror. The composer himself said he had written it “for the pleasure of it” and that he saw death as “a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.” And the final movement, “In Paradisum” is one of the most calming and comforting works I know of.

From a programming perspective, though, Fauré’s Requiem presents a problem. With a running time of around 40 minutes, it’s too short to carry and entire program. So what do you program with it? Denève’s elegant solution to that problem was to open with four short works consistent with the theme of comfort and consolation. All four were by French composers: one by Fauré himself and three by his students at the Paris Conservatoire. Fauré taught composition from there from 1896 until 1905, when he became the director—a position he held until his retirement in 1920.

Historically and emotionally it was the perfect choice. Running a little over 90 minutes with only one brief pause for a stage change, the evening was an oasis of beauty and tranquility in an increasingly ugly and angry world. And that’s despite the fact that, from where we wound up sitting, much of the Requiem was the sonic equivalent of the way the world looks to the very nearsighted without glasses: a massive blur.

That has nothing to do with the quality of the performance and everything to do with the extremely live acoustics of the Cathedral Basilica. It’s a visually stunning place but its massive size and hard surfaces give it a reverberation that can, from the wrong location, turn everything into sonic mush.

That said, I am at least able to say that Denève’s tempo choices were just slow enough to avoid making the sonic issues worse without depriving the music of its vitality. The chorus sang with remarkable clarity under the circumstances.

Baritone Davóne Tines
Photo: Noah Morrison

Soprano soloist Brenda Rae, whom we could easily see and hear from our spot far house left, sang her “Pie Jesu” solo with a bell-like clarity and emotional commitment. And, as my wife pointed out, she sang Latin as though it were her native tongue. Unfortunately, our location made it difficult to hear and impossible to see baritone soloist Davóne Tines, so all I can say is that his powerful voice seemed to have a great impact on audience members in the more sonically viable central area of the cathedral.

The concert opened with Fauré’s arrangement of his Pavane, Op. 50, for small orchestra and optional chorus. Denève split the chorus in half, with sopranos and altos house left and tenors and basses house right. From where we were, the men were almost inaudible, but the women sounded wonderful.

Happily, we were able to hear the following three works fairly clearly.

Next was the string orchestra arrangement of the “Choral sur le nom de Fauré” by Charles Koechlin (1867–1950). The music is simplicity itself, being a short fantasia on a five-note motif that spells Fauré’s name, and which sounds rather like “The Lamb” by 20th century composer John Taverner (1944–2013). The performance was perfection in any case.

I was equally taken with the ”Pie Jesu” for soprano, string quartet, harp, and organ by Lili Boulanger (1893–1918), the tragically short-lived younger sister of very long-lived conductor/composer/teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979). It’s the last thing Lili wrote, and Brenda Rae’s performance was exceptionally heartfelt and moving.

Wrapping up the first half of the evening was the popular “Pavane pour une infante défunte” by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937). There was some truly fine playing here from the flute and horn soloists, and Denève conducted with his usual elegance.

Next from the SLSO: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with soloists Erin Schreiber (violin) and Melissa Brooks (cello) in a program of orchestral opera selections. The performance takes place at 3 pm on Sunday, March 3 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus. Check out my preview for more details.

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