Johann Sebastian Bach’s Double Violin Concerto reawakened Powell Hall on Friday night as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed its first live concert since November. Music director Stéphane Denève conducted an abbreviated program for a limited, socially distanced, enthusiastic crowd.
In addition to Bach, the “Songs, Prayers and Rituals” concert featured two composers from Estonia, Ester Mägi and Arvo Pärt, and concluded with an impassioned Chamber Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. All but the Bach piece are SLSO debuts.
Composed in the early 1700s in his Leipzig period, the “Bach Double,” as it’s fondly known, features two violins complemented by strings. In her SLSO performance debut, new assistant conductor and violinist Stephanie Childress partnered with SLSO associate principal second violinist Kristin Ahlstrom as soloists.
The two communicated well with each other and with the orchestra. Already Childress seemed right at home, glancing often at the musicians around her, feeding them musical energy and feeding off of theirs.
Though masked and socially distant, the orchestra was astonishingly in sync. It may be the eyes tricking the ears, but the space between the soloists, and between each member of the orchestra, generated a pleasing, open soundstage.
And Denève revved up the tempo to just the right speed, energetic but not so fast as to choke off acoustic space between the notes.
From Leipzig to Estonia. Ester Mägi’s “Vesper” highlights her interest in choral and vocal music, which has a rich tradition in Estonia. Second associate concertmaster Celeste Golden Boyer’s fine violin solo work contributed to the airy feel of the musical prayer.
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (“Song in memory of Benjamin Britten”) by Arvo Pärt, the second Estonian on the program, provides a long, measured descent in the orchestra to the tolling of a single bell in the background.
Denève took keen advantage of the unusually quiet space with the smaller audience. He let the music breathe where it needed to. The end of the Cantus created a poignant, magical moment as orchestra and audience reveled silently in the long decaying overtones of Alan Stewart’s final note on the chime. You could feel the collective wait to exhale.
While Pärt dedicated Cantus to Britten, Shostakovich dedicated his Chamber Symphony to — himself.
The autobiographical nature of the symphony emerges through many quotations of other Shostakovich works, including his first symphony. He also uses a musical monograph, a four-note motif that encodes a German version of his own name in the notes D, E-flat, C, B.
Denève found in the Shostakovich more opportunities to exploit the stillness of the hall. The dynamic contrast in the pounding of the full orchestra interlaced with Boyer’s delicate solo violin passages actualized details in the score lost in other performances.
Principal cellist Danny Lee’s solos displayed his skill in the upper range of the instrument. His expressive vibrato is a joy to hear — and to watch.
With several curtain calls, the audience expressed its sincere appreciation to Denève and the SLSO musicians for a thoughtful and well-executed program — and for the rebirth of live music at Powell Hall.