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SLSO music director looks forward to 'a sea of people' at free Art Hill concert

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For St. Louis Symphony Orchestra music director Stéphane Denève, last September’s season-opening free concert in Forest Park was an especially celebratory occasion. COVID had canceled the 2020 outdoor affair and reduced much of the 2020-21 season to socially distanced or digital-only programming.

But with the pandemic abating, the space between orchestra and audience could safely be reduced, and Denève found himself in “a sea of people. I felt so much a part of it,” he says. “I felt a sense of belonging to each other. The people were so happy. It’s a family-oriented evening. It’s very fun. Everybody is welcome, and it’s wonderful.”

Seated on a couch in his Powell Hall office, Denève continues to rhapsodize about the event. “Actually,” he insists, “I could do even more of that.”

Come Wednesday, he’ll get his wish, as the SLSO will perform once again at the base of Art Hill.

SLSO draws thousands for free Art Hill concert

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Conductor Stéphane Denève during 2021's Art Hill concert. 

The concert is designed to offer a snapshot of the orchestra’s 2022-23 season, featuring classical favorites and new music with an international flavor, an opera aria sung by soprano Raquel González, film music and some patriotic fare to go along with the fireworks finale. The program will include “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev,” “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca,” Arturo Márquez’s “Conga del Fuego Nueva,” John Williams’ themes to “The Mission” and “Star Wars,” and Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The Forest Park performance and the 2022-23 season may have a deeper resonance for Denève, now in his fourth year as music director (his contract, extended last year, runs through the 2025-26 season). Last month he and his wife, Åsa, along with their 14-year-old daughter, Alma, moved to St. Louis from their previous home just outside Brussels, Belgium.

“(The move) is really a result of the community being so welcoming here,” he says. “I felt like people really wanted to make me at ease. It’s a very warm, very friendly environment. So it was very natural for my wife and daughter to live the American dream, hopefully.”

SLSO draws thousands for free Art Hill concert

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Conductor Stéphane Denève leads musicians on Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2021, during the annual free concert on Art Hill.

Besides the move, the highlight of Denève’s summer — indeed, “the highlight of my entire life,” he enthuses — was June’s gala concert in celebration of composer and conductor John Williams’ 90th birthday. Williams personally selected Denève to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra for the event, which featured special guests Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Spielberg, Anne-Sophie Mutter and East St. Louis-born Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

“I had dinner with John, and he told me he really loved Jackie Joyner, who he met here in St. Louis when he conducted the concert at the Arch,” Denève says. “He was very happy she was there.”

Denève’s other offseason activities included conducting the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Japan and the Brussels Philharmonic in Belgium — his final performance as the latter orchestra’s chief conductor.

As for the other members of the SLSO’s artistic leadership, Stephanie Childress will return for her second season as assistant conductor and music director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. Kevin McBeth will again serve as In Unison Chorus director, and Leonard Slatkin remains as conductor laureate.

SLSO wlecomes new assistant conductor

Stephanie Childress poses for a portrait inside Powell Hall in St. Louis on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Childress is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's new assistant conductor and director of youth orchestra. Childress graduated from the University of Cambridge at age 19 and formed her own ensemble, Orchestra Rheia, at age 20, now at age 21 she has taken the role as assistant conductor to the SLSO under Music Director Stéphane Denève. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

Still undecided is who will become the next director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. Amy Kaiser, who held the position for 27 years, retired at the end of last season. There seems to be little appetite for rushing to replace her.

“We’re exploring talent and inviting a few directors to prepare the chorus this year,” says SLSO president and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard. “Amy leaves very big shoes to fill. And for us, the chemistry of the director and the chorus is very, very important.”

'Music without boundaries'

The stated principle behind the orchestra’s 143rd season is “repertoire that spans genre and time and celebrates music without boundaries, offering a musical journey to places near and far, real and imaginary, physical and spiritual.”

That’s a heady aspiration, but while having an overall theme for the season is not obligatory, Denève says, “I like to have a narrative because it speaks to me, and I like to put music in context. (Music without boundaries) has to do with the time where we were hoping for COVID to disappear and for the world to reopen, and for these feelings that music can once again connect people that have been separated.”

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

In addition to numerous works from the classical canon, the season will feature more than two dozen pieces new to the SLSO repertoire, including 18 works by 16 contemporary composers. Among them are Guillaume Connesson, Kevin Puts, James Lee III, Wynton Marsalis, Helen Grime, Qigang Chen, Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Nokuthula Ngwenyama and James MacMillan.

“Twenty-five percent, a fourth of what we play is from living composers,” Denève says. “That’s phenomenal, I think.”

The SLSO’s commitment to new music is a source of pride for Denève, “but not for the reason you’d expect,” he says. “It’s not militant, like I’m on a mission. It’s because the symphonic world is going in the right direction with a lot of composers of today that write good music.”

Audiences shouldn’t be daunted by the notion of new music, he adds, noting that “new” doesn’t necessarily mean “dissonant.” “New music is not a genre,” he says. “There are so many different types of new music. It just means one thing — that’s it’s written today.”

Denève will conduct a number of those premiers, as well as audience favorites such as Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” Holst’s “The Planets” and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Childress, in addition to her duties with the Youth Orchestra, will conduct two classical programs, including Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 and Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” and will lead the always-popular New Year’s Eve Celebration concerts.

Slatkin will conduct a program featuring the premiere of Mason Bates’ “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology" and Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote.”

The In Unison Chorus will perform its annual programs “A Gospel Christmas” and “Lift Every Voice: Celebrating Black History Month,” plus a community concert honoring the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The St. Louis Symphony Chorus will perform five times throughout the season, including performances of Poulenc’s “Stabat Mater,” Handel’s “Messiah” and Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.”

The latter piece was originally scheduled for March 2020 but was canceled due to COVID. Rescheduled as the finale of this season, it will include the St. Louis Children’s Choirs and the all-star cast of vocalists that Denève had assembled for the original performance — no mean feat.

“This is really almost a revenge thing (against COVID),” he says with a laugh. “Like, haha, we won!”

Other programs making a return include the SLSO’s Crafted series of hourlong happy hour concerts, various community concerts, holiday programs, educational opportunities and the Live at Powell Hall series featuring popular music artists, films and musical tributes.

Notable guest conductors and soloists

Among the guest conductors leading the orchestra this year are Jonathan Heyward, Thomas Søndergård, Hannu Lintu, Xian Zhang, John Storgårds, Laurence Cummings, James MacMillan, Norman Huynh, Jane Glover, Cristian Măcelaru and Nicholas McGegan.

Guest soloists include pianists Marie-Ange Nguci, Alice Sara Ott and Lise de la Salle, all making their SLSO debut. Others making return visits are vocalists Kelley O’Connor and John Relyea, pianists Víkingur Ólafsson, Piotr Anderszewski and Kirill Gerstein, and violinists Leila Josefowicz and James Ehnes.

A two-week residency by violinist Nicola Benedetti will premiere works by MacMillan and Marsalis and will include educational activities for local students.

European tour

For the first time since music director David Robertson took the orchestra to Spain in 2017, the SLSO will cross the Atlantic for 2023 concerts in a number of cities, though the exact arrangements are still awaiting confirmation.

“I will be very proud to show off (the orchestra),” Denève says. “The virtuosity and the big sound. It’s really a meaty, beautiful, rich American sound. This is extremely exciting.”

Broadcasts, digital resources

Once again, live concerts will be broadcast on both sides of the FM dial — on 90.7 KWMU and Classic 107.3. Select concerts will stream on slso.org. A new slate of digital concerts will be available for streaming at slso.org/digitalconcerts.

The orchestra’s online educational resources, which expanded during the pandemic, will also continue, as their popularity seems to have exploded.

“What is incredible is the impact we had digitally with our education department,” Denève says, noting that orchestra programs such as SLSO Soundlab “impacted 250,000 students. Our presence thanks to the development of the digital products and programs and series really changed the game. That’s really the silver lining of (the pandemic).

Details are available at slso.org/learning and slso.org/schools.

Powell Hall renovation

Though it won’t really impact the coming season, the other major item on the SLSO agenda is the $100 million Powell Hall renovation that was announced in March.

“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that’s very complex,” Bernard says, adding that the plan is to break ground sometime in 2023.

Still, it’s an essential piece of the puzzle for maintaining the health and reputation of what remains one of the nation’s finest orchestras.

“In the end, it’s a project that will have lasting impact on current generations and future generations,” Bernard says. “Powell Hall is already a music center destination. But this is truly integrating Powell Hall as the music center of St. Louis — a music center that offers the versatility that we need, not just for the symphony but to truly expand programming for the community and invite other artists to come and share the stage with us.”

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