Julia Wolfe and Stéphane Denève. Photo by Eric Dundon  courtesy of the SLSO.

This past Saturday (23 March 2024), Stéphane Denève once again wowed the Saint Louis Symphony’s audience with expert program construction, freshening a repertory standard, Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto, with exactly the right choice of new work, Julia Wolfe’s energizing and provocative “Pretty.” The concert interrogated the gender binary, and our ideas about “feminine” and “masculine” music and musicmaking, a difficult trick when two of the three slated works were sourced from the 19C.

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

Classical music organizations face a crossroads, seemingly handcuffed before its fork. Ticket sales alone have never squared the bottom line, so a dwindling number of deeply appreciated senior donors—often with lamentably conservative taste—incent perennial flogging of the standard repertory horse; meanwhile, less pecunious younger audience respond with their presence more reliably at crossover/pop/film concerts and exhibit less attachment to the canon. Orchestras, many of which find themselves in even direr fiscal straits than opera companies, do enjoy one advantage over the latter—they can schedule for both groups in the same concert, while the local opera house must choose whether this quarter’s single offering will be something adventurous, or a nine zillionth “Carmen.”

But the concert hall has seen a wonderful development. A couple decades ago, I would choose to encounter the pre-intermission mid- or late 20C work with an open mind and a good attitude, and then find myself dutifully enduring it. This occurred often with notable 20C composers whose oeuvres were showered with academic acclaim but received cooly by audiences accustomed to a diet of Classical and Romantic period comfort food. But nowadays, a bevy of living and less-entirely male composers have mastered simultaneously delighting and challenging the audience, such that you might come for the Beethoven piano concerto you’ve already heard, but you stay for the contemporary work that knocks your socks off. Of all Stéphane Denève’s plusses, his facility for simultaneously familiarizing the new while defamiliarizing the known might rate highest.

The concert opened with Hector Berlioz’s overture to the opera “Béatrice et Bénédict” (1833), an easygoing launch for the robuster feminist stance taken by Julia Wolfe’s “Pretty.” Berlioz wrote his own libretto adapting Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the overture thrives in the concert hall while the opera appears seldom. Maestro characterized Béatrice as “brilliant, witty, outspoken, fiercely independent but loving,” and “an example of early modern feminism.” Sensing a receptive audience, he punctuated his remarks with a laugh-eliciting “girl power!” Some wobbly horns greeted us during the overture’s martial introduction, presented by a modest instrumental complement (but six ‘celli). An instantaneous recovery presented the tender B subject, the orchestra glorying in AB Hall’s heavenly acoustics. The silence hung lightly during Denève’s rests, and the orchestra embraced the listener with a sound of such beauty that’s difficult to wordify. As though there’s a surface of the clearest water at the stage’s apron, both reflecting golden sunlight into the auditorium, but translucently visible and deep stretching behind into the orchestra, like nowhere else in Saint Louis. “Béatrice et Bénédict” saw seamless interplay between the strings and winds, accented by tweety flutes. Denève ended with a precise cutoff that embodied balance of serio- and comic.

Maestro then waved the score of Julia Wolfe’s extraordinary piece, “Pretty” at the audience, plugging its “very special sound world” and advising us to “fasten your seatbelts” because it was “my chance to do public air guitar,” alluding to how “Pretty” enacts all the strings serving as one large strummer. He also referenced interviews with Wolfe in which she discussed gender, and the word pretty’s Germanic etymology, with meanings of cleverness and cunning, before landing on its appearance-based meaning in late Middle English and entering its gendered existence later yet. Wolfe styles the title ironically relative to its current uses connoting docile women.

A co-commission, “Pretty” (2023) world premiered with no less an outfit than the Berlin Philharmonic last summer. Wolfe’s music generally privileges genre-busting and boundary-crossing, combining American folk modes, classical idioms, and rock & roll. Shirley Arthorp, reviewing “Pretty” in Berlin, characterized its musical language so: “minimalist soundscapes of Steve Reich meet the animation of John Adams in a sound-world that is very much Wolfe’s own, a brash New York in-your-face yelp of delight.” That’s apt enough, though despite the percussive aspects of “Pretty,” it’s easier on the ears than Adams. Most resembling Adams is Wolfe’s tendency to dramatize “horizons” fast approaching and then passing the listener. Melodies suggested themselves without fully coming into view before flying past.

“Pretty” opened with driving, buzzing strings, mostly in unison, like a turbocharged hurdy-gurdy, with repeated, blaring minor thirds in the violins. Another faintly echoed composer might be Clint Mansell, “in Requiem for a Dream’s” writing for Kronos Quartet, the low strings engaged in a fast growl. Four percussionists tended an array of instruments including a rock & roll drum kit, extra snare drums, and marimba; cascading waves of percussion broke over the throbbing strings. About four minutes in, repeated rising glissandos in the trombones made the tension almost unbearable, like sexual edging, never resolving harmonically, but occasionally interrupted by a pregnant rest before continuing. The strings grew towards filmic horror cues; soft winds would attempt to rise and stern brass would drag them back down.

Paradoxically, “Pretty” for long stretches manages to sound pretty while flowing ominously, depicting the exhilaration of living in dangerous times. We say we desire peace; do we actually? Forcefully screechy E-string violins gave way to the principals playing brief cadenzas, sort of, over droning low strings and below squealing flutes. (How, one wonders, did no one break an E-string?) Punching brass and bass drum gave a “Rite of Spring” flavor. “Pretty” elicited toe-tapping, as the syncopated drive would stop short, and resume, Denève’s Franco-fro bouncing behind his head. The brass became jazzier, the glissing trombones returned, and the drummer got a workout. The collective effect reminded me of the feeling one experiences in the southeastern United States when a category 4 or 5 hurricane approaches, twenty-four hours prior to landfall. Despite the fact that people will probably die, and you don’t want them to, you also experience a visceral thrill at the sight of the perfectly symmetrical central dense overcast and the numbers reporting the storm’s intensification. “Pretty” ended in medias res, gesturing towards more of the same happening but the eighteen minutes elapsed being our only glimpse thereof. Denève curtain called all four percussionists and the composer. Wolfe hugged him on the podium. Surely her composition will endure in the concert hall.

An interesting engagement with gender continued after intermission, as Tom Borrow graced us with such a delicate, Classical reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto № 5 in E♭ (1811) that it substantially undermined gendered construction of the composer’s heroic mode. That needs to occur. Lots of discourse surrounds Beethoven and his selection of diatonic keys, bordering on pseudoscience but, frequently, intuitively spot on; the job assigned E♭ in those narratives traditionally a masculine gendered heroism. No definitive account exists of how the subtitle “Emperor” velcroed itself to the concerto, but no one called it ‘Empress.” The moniker has always seemed misnomered; while the work does exhibit an expansive scope by Classical period standards, verging on Romanticism as Beethoven so often does, it also doesn’t feel particularly martial, or stately for long stretches. In selling the piece to newbs, I always mention the tender scene from “Dead Poets Society” (1989) in which young student and actor Robert Sean Leonard seeks teacher Robin Williams’ advice in the latter’s quarters, the slow movement of “Emperor” providing the soundtrack. Neither does “Emperor” sound stereotypically dudeish. 19C or no, we could [gasp] discard the gender binary altogether when discussing this composer’s absolute music. Borrow gave us a sensitive interpretation foregrounding the concerto’s softer elements, classical light, buoyancy, private confession, rather than public or monumental stances.

The young Israeli pianist Tom Borrow appeared in series with four other soloists essaying all five of Beethoven’s piano concerti this SLSO season, not least Paul Lewis’ standout delivery of the Fourth last autumn. As with Lewis’ performance, A-B Hall itself served as accompanist to the musicians, its acoustics forming a solar golden hour in which they worked. The Hall, Borrow, Denève and the band combined once again to gift us with scarcely believable sonic balance. Yes, the opening orchestral chords live in Beethoven’s monumental idiom, but Borrow’s first cadenza emerged with the texture of air caressing water’s surface, and the orchestra’s dialogic response came with a dancy, Haydnesque, fluid sassiness in the violins. With Classical ebullience, the orchestra handed the floor back to Borrow, whose reprise of the A subject became pensive on its return. Denève coaxed another of so many seamless transitions, from pensive, to serene courtly dance, like Mozart with more momentum.

The slender Borrow’s arms and hands resemble swimmer Michael Phelps, extending for days from his French cuffs with his hands and wrists distinguishable from each other all the way from the mezzanine. He employed these tools with range, cataracts of notes softly flowing from his right fingertips, and then polishing white marble with the left in the first cadenza’s return. (Deaf by the time of the concerto’s premiere, Beethoven specified these in the score rather than granting the pianist ad libitum, then an innovation). If you have any say in the matter, situate yourself house left when a pianist visits: much of the music dwelt in watching Borrow’s fingers and forearms. Most of the first moment unfolded as though he were casting a vase on a potter’s wheel, adding water as he went. But air won out over water in the delicate tickles of the treble keys closing the first movement preceding the tutti full stop.

Peter Weir and Maurice Jarre knew what they were doing when they gave Williams and Leonard the slow movement’s nocturne for that crucial scene in “Dead Poets Society,” connecting their cozy, book-surrounded exchange to a serene eternity for Leonard’s character without naming his impending death. Denève played the orchestra’s amens with the texture of the lightest, golden dough while Borrow rendered the nearly elegiac piano voice with peace stretching to timelessness. Borrow’s sensitivity transformed even the increased chromaticism of the second cadenza into a weightless flight of the soul. The orchestra attempted to ‘amen’ him again, but he’d already spirited the audience into the beyond. Jarring, always, but perhaps less so this time with Borrow’s feathery intro, arrived the attacca segue to the last movement’s rondo, the concerto’s reentry into the social world. He may lack Paul Lewis’ experience but presented a coherent vision of the work, his left hand airy as the right—the orchestra did all the insisting. The performance combined Beethoven’s core-strength with a diaphanous Mozartian float—the closing chromatic outburst didn’t burst out but rather bloomed. Borrow, but twenty-four years old, bowed almost sheepishly, approximating before him those gargantuan hands.

He might get the better of a high five with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s legendary colossal mitts, and he obliged the pleading audience with an encore from the Russian master, the Prelude № 12 in G♯-minor, quite a ways around the circle of fifths from “Emperor.” This prelude acts as an undulatory, sort of maritime lullaby, posturing Frenchy sophistication with a bit more Slavic fire. Towards the close, agitato chromatic tumbles gave way to a very serious comment in the left hand. The audience responded with glee before dispersing into the North County night.

Concertgoers are unlikely to be bored with the SLSO in the Denève era. Each week brings a compelling conversation between the programmed pieces. The mini-festival of Beethoven Piano concerti continues at the Touhill April 19 through 21, 2024, with Marie-Ange Nguci playing № 2 in B♭. John Storgårds conducts in a program that includes “Rakastava (The Lover)” and the Symphony No. 7 by Sibelius along with “Lysning (Glade)” by Per Nørgård.

Between now and then the SLSO presents “R.E.M. Explored” at Stifel on Friday, April 5 at 7:30 pm;  “Live at The Sheldon: Horn Calls”  on Sunday, April 7 at 3 pm at the Sheldon Concert Hall; “Live at the Pulitzer: People and Place” on Tuesday, April 9 at 7:30 pm; and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi In Concert” Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, April 13 and 14 at Stifel.

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