It’s a new era at Powell Symphony Hall. Ticket prices have been lowered. The orchestra has been re-rebranded, with a new retro logo that recalls the 1960s and the end of the last misbegotten rebranding as the “STL Symphony,” it’s once again the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the press releases.
And, of course, there’s a new music director. On Saturday night, Stéphane Denève, the lucky 13th, launched his tenure with an exciting and well-matched mixture of works that emphasized both French and American music, as well as his expertise in a variety of styles. The orchestra seems to enjoy making music with him, and he charmed the audience.
The tightly packed program opened with the traditional opening night singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then offered a world premiere commissioned for the occasion. St. Louis native Kevin Puts (b. 1972) used a French medieval love song, “Dame, a vous sans retollir,” by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), as the basis for “Virelai.” Brief, cheery and thoroughly delightful, it grows as it progresses. The piece and Puts, who was in the house, received a well-deserved ovation.
Denève followed that with the contrast of “blue cathedral,” a 2000 work by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962). Written after the death of her brother, whose middle name was Blue, it’s a contemplative piece that opens busily but ends quietly. There are substantial solo passages for flute (the instrument Higdon played) and clarinet (her brother’s instrument), expressively played by associate principal flute Andrea Kaplan and associate principal clarinet Diana Haskell.
The rest of the first half was taken by a familiar composition, “La Mer,” by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). A symphony by any other name, there are few works that provide such vivid descriptions in music. Denève and the orchestra brought it all vibrantly to life in one of the best readings of this score I can remember in recent years.
There were three more works in the second half, as well as the introduction of the evening’s soloist, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the orchestra’s first artist-in-residence. The first, “The Shining One,” by French composer Guillaume Connesson (b. 1970), was written in 2009 for Thibaudet as a “sequel” to Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, and inspired by a fantasy story by Abraham Merritt (1884-1943). Short, punchy and intriguing, it served here as the introduction to the Ravel.
The Ravel, of course, is familiar territory, a jazz-inflected work that calls for dazzling technique and a feel for syncopation. Denève and Thibaudet have worked frequently together over the years. Thibaudet introduced Denève to his wife, Åsa Masters, and served as best man at their wedding; they have a deep connection, and it shows. This was a powerful, memorable reading for the most part; the simple beauty of the second movement needed a slightly slower tempo.
The last work on the program underlined the Franco-American arch of the program: George Gershwin’s 1932 “An American in Paris.” Denève and his new orchestra gave it a bright, irresistible reading, laden with contributions from virtually every principal player, a fitting end to the start of the new season.