Saturday evening’s concert by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra constituted a triumphant return to Powell Hall and more normal music-making.
Anti-COVID precautions continue, certainly, but recorded music doesn’t hold a candle to live performance — the acoustics, the excitement of new music, the charm of old music. Two standing ovations form testimony to the triumph of the occasion and the high quality of the music.
New music was represented in pieces by two female composers, the American Jessie Montgomery and the British Anna Clyne. Both Montgomery’s “Banner” and Clyne’s “Dance” have been performed and recorded previously, but this was the first time “Dance,” a cello concerto commissioned and performed by Inbal Segev, has been accompanied by live dance.
“Banner” was commissioned to celebrate the 200th birthday of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which opened the concert, but program notes explain that “as an African American person living in the United States, (Montgomery) never felt that the song applied to” her.
A tribute to the national anthem, Montgomery writes, “means acknowledging the contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.”
Her piece features excerpted fragments from several anthems, including “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice,” the African American anthem, recomposed and emerging from a background of modern music in a variety of moods. The message is both deeply felt and complicated.
Clyne’s “Dance” was inspired by a poem by the 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Its five lines, each beginning with the word “dance,” become the titles for the five movements: “when you’re broken open,” “if you’ve torn the bandage off,” “in the middle of the fighting,” “in your blood” and “when you’re perfectly free.” “Dance” features contrasts between the solo instrument and the orchestra, like most concertos, but instead of serving as a vehicle for the soloist’s virtuosity, it expresses a series of musical emotions, variously elegiac, anguished, growing in emotional intensity and even funereal.
The choreography by COCA’s Kirven Douthit-Boyd, performed by Geoffrey Alexander, Carly Vanderheyden, Cici Gregory, Gabriella (“Gabby”) Billy and Antonio Douthit-Boyd, reflected these various moods, plus great professionalism and athleticism, helping to bring on the first standing ovation of the evening.
The Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, written in 1877 by Pyotr Ilyich (“Peter”) Tchaikovsky, reminds us all why we fell in love with powerful classical music for orchestra in the first place. The volume can be turned up on recorded music until it becomes obnoxious, but that doesn’t replicate the thrill of live performance.
SLSO music director Stéphane Denève’s interpretation emphasized contrasts between the mighty blasts of the full orchestra, including a large, powerful brass section and quieter moments, such as extended moments of pizzicato strings, and a particularly beautiful oboe solo by Jelena Dirks that began the second movement. The artistry was clearly in evidence at all times, but it was the power of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral writing that brought on the second standing ovation of the evening.