Like Mr. Robertson, Mr. Denève prefaced each piece with some informative and often very witty comments from the podium, starting with an explanation for the theme of the evening. Since the new year actually starts far to the east and gradually works its way west, he noted, the music on the program would start in the east and work its way around to the Americas before ending with some Viennese New Year's Day favorites.
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Up next was a pair of old musical friends: the "Polonaise" from Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin" and the "Dance of the Hours" from Ponchielli's 1876 opera "La Gioconda." Mr. Denève put his own stamp on both works, finding more variety of expression than is sometimes heard in performances of these old warhorses. This was especially true in his "Dance of the Hours" with its hushed, delicate opening and wide emotional range. That didn't stop the audience from chuckling at the overly familiar melody of the first section (thanks a lot Walt Disney and Alan Sherman), but Mr. Denève took it all in good-humored stride.
Next the spotlight shifted to SLSO second violinist Andrea Jarrett, who gave us a lovely rendition of Fritz Kreisler's sentimental "Liebesleid" (literally, "Love's Sorrow") and then to Opera Theatre alumna Elizabeth Sutphen for a delightfully theatrical performance of "Mein Herr Marquis" (a.k.a. "Adele's Laughing Song") from Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus." The latter got an unexpected comic vocal assist from Mr. Denève and the orchestra.
Dance music dominated the second half of the concert, beginning with a somewhat muted performance of the "Ritual Fire Dance" from Falla's "El amor brujo" followed by the return of Ms. Sutphen for "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady." Mr. Denève introduced the latter with the tongue in cheek comment that we were now "leaving Europe to go to England," which produced one of the biggest laughs of the evening. Clearly, this was a crowd that was up on its Brexit news.
Crossing the Atlantic to the Americas, we next got two of the most dramatic and sensual works of the evening, the "Libertango" by Argentina's Astor Piazzolla (orchestrated by Federico Mondelei) and the "Danzón No. 2" by contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Márquez.
For "Libertango" the orchestra was joined by Dustin Crumbaugh and Ellen Reed of the Big Muddy Dance Company, expertly executing fluid and subtly sexy choreography by Big Muddy artistic director Brian Reed. It owed more to classical ballet and modern dance than to the tango, but it worked perfectly with the music nevertheless.
Photo: Carly Venderheyden
A chorus or two of J.K. Shannon and John Valentine Eppel's 1914 "Missouri Waltz" (our official state song) was next, although when he invited the audience to sing along, Mr. Denève seemed a bit bemused by the fact that almost nobody in the house (including yours truly) knew the lyrics.
Photo: Carly Venderheyden
While introducing the Bizet, Mr. Denève pointed out that the farandole is an old French line dance in which everyone joins hands. It brings people together, he said, in the same way he believes music can bring us all together. In a world in which those in positions of power and influence are doing their best to drive us apart, that sounds like a fine hope for the new year.
A sing-along of "Auld Lang Syne" (to which everyone did know the words) sent the audience out with smiles on their faces and, I would like to believe, hopes for a new year in which Mr. Denève's conviction is realized. It certainly did that for me, anyway; if you were there, I hope it did the same for you.
Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève conducts the orchestra and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2, along with Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," a suite from Richard Strauss's opera "Der Rosenkavalier," and Anna Clyne's "This Midnight Hour." Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, January 18 and 19. Mr. Thibaudet will also join SLSO musicians for a program of chamber music by Poulenc and Shostakovich on Friday, January 17, at Washington University's 560 Music Center.