Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Symphony Review: A spring awakening with Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony, February 7 and 8, 2015

Stéphane Denève in the auditorium
of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris
Photo: Tom Finnie
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève
What: Music of Debussy, James MacMillan, and Dvořák
When: February 7 and 8, 2015
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis

A bit of spring blew through St. Louis a couple of months early this weekend, and I’m not just talking about the temperatures outside.  Inside Powell Hall it was unseasonably vernal, as well, as Principal Flute Mark Sparks and the St. Louis Symphony under guest  conductor Stéphane Denève gave voice to Debussy’s sultry “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”).

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

Inspired by an 1876 poem by the symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé (whom Debussy greatly admired), the “Prélude” exudes what Boston Symphony music librarian Marshall Burlingame describes as a “languorous sensuality” as “the faun’s conscious observation of two nymphs in the sunlight drifts into erotic fantasy.”  Even in Mallarmé’s elliptical poetry, it’s steamy stuff.

Mark Sparks
Mr. Denève’s loving and subtly shaded interpretation, combined with Mr. Sparks’ graceful playing of the solo part (the flute takes on the role of the faun’s panpipes), produced exactly the lubricious atmosphere the composer had in mind.  Working without a baton, Mr. Denève artfully shaped  phrases with his hands in the manner of the late Leopold Stokowski while still making individual cues pointed and unambiguous.  He is, as I have noted in the past, a commanding figure on the podium and an interesting visual study.

Immediately following the first dose of Debussy, we got a second: the brief “Syrinx” for solo flute from 1913.  It wasn’t on the printed program, having been added during rehearsals as a result of discussions between Mr. Sparks and Mr. Denève, but there was nothing rushed or under-rehearsed about Mr. Sparks’ seemingly effortless performance.

Next up was the local premiere of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3, “The Mysteries of Light.”  Based on the five “Luminous Mysteries” added to the existing fifteen rosary mysteries by Pope John Paul II in 2002, the work is not so much a classic concerto as it is a symphony with a prominent piano part.  Yes, the pianist has some impressively flashy passages, especially in the finale (“The Institution of the Eucharist”) with its “perpetual motion” coda, but overall the piano is more of an orchestral partner.

As I wrote in my preview article, Mr. MacMillan disdains composers who are (in his words) “deeply suspicious of any significant move towards tonality, any hint of pulse that is actually discernible, and any music which communicates successfully with a non-specialist audience.”  If, in other words, you are weary of music that sounds more like an orchestra tuning up than a deliberate composition, or that seems to have been written more for a grant-funding committee than for a paying audience, Mr. MacMillan is undoubtedly your man.

The 3rd concerto is not what I’d call a subtle work. The first movement (“The Baptism of Jesus  Christ”), for example, features rapid “watery” passages at the upper end of the keyboard while the second movement’s “Wedding at Cana” includes a raucous  tune in the style of a reel.  Jesus’ ascension in the fourth movement is depicted by a massive orchestral crescendo that begins at the very bottom of every instrument’s register and quickly  climbs to the top, and the radiance of Jesus’ face is illustrated by an elaborately beautiful chorale for the strings.

And so it goes.  There’s an almost cinematic vividness to this music—and I mean that in the most flattering way possible.  Unlike some of the newer works the SLSO has unveiled, this is a piece that can be grasped at first hearing while still inviting repeated listening.  We can only hope  that a recording will be forthcoming at some point.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
The soloist for the concerto was Jean-Yves Thibaudet.  He premiered the concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2011, so I think I can safely describe his performance as definitive.  It was certainly assured and intense, backed up by virtuoso playing by the orchestra.  He and Mr. Denève clearly love this music, and their very informative and entertaining spoken introduction, including a brief bit of four-handed piano from the pair, was a nice supplement to the printed program notes.

The concert concluded with the the "Symphony No. 8" in G major, Op. 88, written in 1890 by Antonin Dvořák.  The symphony comes from an especially happy time in the composer’s life.  Thanks, in part, to the enthusiastic support of Brahms, Dvořák was much in demand as both a composer and conductor and was prosperous enough to purchase a home in the Czech countryside that inspired so much of his work.

Composed at his newly acquired home, this cheerful symphony overflows with celebrations of rustic life.  There are twittering birds, cheerful village bands, wandering violinists, and even, at one point, a section that has always made me think of a sudden thunderstorm.  This is the joy of living, wrapped up in the Czech master’s characteristically infectious melodies and dance-inspired rhythms.

Dvořák  is one of my favorite composers and I thought I had heard every possible approach to this consistently good-humored symphony. Mr. Denève still managed to surprise me, though, with an idiosyncratic approach that lingered over orchestral details, sometimes sacrificing the composer’s rhythmic vitality to do so.  And yet, it never felt overdone or excessively episodic.  This was a performance that drew me in, almost in spite of myself.

The orchestra responded with some truly superb playing.  The cellos, under Principal Daniel Lee, brilliantly fulfilled their important melodic role, especially in the first and last movements, and the winds and horns made the most of the loving attention Dvořák lavishes on them all the way through.  Concertmaster David Halen also had a nice moment as that strolling violinist in the second movement.

Finally, a note about silence.  Most of us know that silence is an element of music. John Cage even went to far as to write and entire piece (“4’ 33””) consisting of nothing by four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, along with whatever ambient sound happens to be present at the time.  Dvořák uses silence effectively in the eighth symphony, and Mr. Denève used it effectively throughout the concert.  Before he began the Debussy, for example, he held himself completely still until the last audience wheeze had died out and the opening flute solo could emerge from almost complete quiet.  His understanding of the importance of silence and stillness is, I think, one of the things that makes Mr. Denève’s interpretations stand out from the crowd.

Next at Powell Hall: Kevin McBeth conducts the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON chorus in “Lift Every Voice: A Black History Month Celebration” on Friday, February 13, at 7:30 PM.  The orchestra is supplemented by a rock band for “Faithfully: A Tribute to the Music of Journey” on Saturday, February 14, at 7:30 p.m.  The regular season resumes when Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha leads the orchestra and piano soloist André Watts in Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” and Tchcaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6” (“Pathétique”) on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. February 20 and 21.  For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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