Weekend concerts from next SLSO music director bode well for orchestra's future


Over the weekend, Stéphane Denève led his first concerts with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra since his appointment as the SLSO’s 13th music director was announced last June. On Saturday night at Powell Hall, he was greeted enthusiastically by a nearly full house, and offered some indications of how he’ll proceed from here.

Denève began with a few informative and witty (“This is my last concert — as guest conductor”) words about the music, the orchestra and his plans. “Music has a power to build bridges — or, I should say here, to build arches.”

Although the all-French program was set well before his appointment, it showed some of his thinking. To open and close, there were familiar works by Maurice Ravel, with a piano concerto by Francis Poulenc and a 2012 composition by Guillaume Connesson in between. One piece led logically to the next; it all fit together thoughtfully and engagingly.

Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite” led off. Its five movements based on fairy tales, it was written as a piano duet for a pair of talented children, and expanded from there. It’s music of magic, innocence and a little humor, and it received a first-rate reading from Denève and the orchestra, with fine solo work from those in the principal chairs.

Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra is a mixture of influences from Parisian music halls to Mozart, Javanese gamelan music to jazz. It starts out hyperactive, moves to dreaminess and ends with lovely, limpid phrases, covering a lot of ground along the way.

The soloists were identical twins Christina and Michelle Naughton (in not-quite-identical shimmering black dresses), who displayed both terrific technical skills and an uncanny sense of connection, trading vivid lines back and forth in an intense performance.

They rewarded the ovation that greeted them at its conclusion with a big, jazzy encore, Paul Schoenfield’s “Boogie,” as Denève observed from the celeste.

“Flammenschrift” means “Fire-letter,” and Connesson’s brief piece starts with a riff on the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, turning it into a fiery portrait of the composer as an angry man. It starts off flaming, calms down a little (with interjections from the concertmaster), and then rebuilds to an abrupt ending. Denève called it (and the other contemporary works he champions) “repertory of the future;” it’s an interesting, approachable piece, and this performance made a strong case for it.

To conclude the concert, Denève played two well-known (and related) works by Ravel, “Valses nobles et sentimentales (Noble and Sentimental Waltzes)” and “La valse,” without pausing between them. The moods of “Valses” vary, from lilting to mysterious to mildly ominous, while “La valse” soon turns to a threatening portrayal of the era that ended with World War I, a feverish disintegration of a society marked by drums thumping like cannon.

It’s music the SLSO knows and plays well; this approach brought out additional depths in both compositions. It all bodes well for the orchestra’s next few years.

By Sarah Bryan Miller St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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