James Lee III

James Lee III 

A group of students from Marquette High School filed up the carpeted steps at Powell Hall on Friday, guided by an instructor. They were very lucky, because this weekend the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Stéphane Denève, is performing a program that offers a perfect introduction to symphonic music.

The centerpiece of the program, which concludes the first half, is George Gershwin's "Concerto in F" (1896). The lush interplay of the orchestra's sections spotlit guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as he took delight in playing Gershwin's jaunty, striding piano lines.

At times the orchestra fell silent as the piano was joined in mini duets: with a wood block, a xylophone, the cello section. The composition and performance were so uplifting that a crowded Powell Hall erupted in spontaneous applause at the end of the "Allegro." Denève appeared almost to gloat from the conductor's stand as he waited for the audience to hush up so the orchestra could continue playing the composition.

From there, two of the orchestra's associate principal musicians, Tom Drake on trumpet and Andrea Kaplan on flute, joined Denève and  Thibaudet in the spotlight. Gershwin wrote lively melodies with idiosyncratic jazz voicings for trumpet and flute in this concerto, and Drake and Kaplan took evident joy in playing them. At the end of the performance, Thibaudet all but mobbed Denève and waved for the musicians to stand, paying special attention to Drake. Clearly, the featured pianist appreciated the precision and interplay of an orchestra in top form.

The Gershwin concerto is a brilliant pairing with the program's opening piece, SLSO's first performance of "Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan" (2010-2011) by James Lee III, a Black composer who teaches music at Morgan State University. Both pieces have melodies to burn. In Lee's case, he quotes from African-American spirituals and popular tunes such as "I Wish I was in Dixie Land" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Denève introduced "Chuphshah!" (Hebrew for "freedom") as a narrative piece about Harriet Tubman, and Lee composed music with a dramatic range equal to telling that remarkable story. The standout orchestration here was his use of marimba, with at times two percussionists playing virtuosic episodes on the instrument. 

The program concludes with Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Symphony No. 3" (1935), which provided another opportunity for intricate ensemble playing with surprising little features along the way. There were echoes from the first half of the program, with marimba accents, a creative use of unusual dual instrumentation (two harps rather than two marimbas), and a distinctive fluttering flute line (Rachmaninoff appeared to know his Gershwin). This symphony has no piano - it was as if Gershwin and Thibaudet had scorched the Powell Hall stage for piano - though it has a celesta.

Rachmaninoff provides so many memorable opportunities for musicians in this symphony. If there is a standout section in the ensemble, it would be the strings, which vary between lush and romantic, bright and intense, and percussive and plucked; Concertmaster David Halen enjoyed some emotive features on violin. Throughout, the woodwinds provided a warm, soothing midrange to the strings. Rachmaninoff pairs the harp with horns and then with flutes. He also uses percussion to dramatic effect, with a snare drum, cymbals, and tambourine piercing the melodies. No composer made better use of the humble tambourine than Rachmaninoff.

I happened to see Thibaudet report for work at Powell Hall shortly before the program started. He had a light, easy step, as if looking forward to the program and his role in it. Let's hope we see him on the streets and stages of St. Louis again soon. 

SLSO performs this program again 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19. See slso.org.

You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.