It was like old home week at the Lied Center for Performing Arts Thursday night, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on the mainstage.
The orchestra has appeared at the Lied and Kimball Hall several times over the last 40 years.
What’s new with the symphony is music director and conductor Stéphane Denève taking over after a year of being director designate. It was Denève’s first official road appearance, and the concert featured three well-known works on the playbill.
In contrast, the first piece was “blue cathedral,” a millennium orchestra composition by Jennifer Higdon. In the work, Higdon portrays a cathedral in the sky, reflecting on the life of her younger brother who had just died.
Flute and clarinet play a significant role as the first is Higdon’s instrument and the last represents her brother. The orchestra plays a peaceful, calm opening that moves into a celebration and reaches for the immense cathedral ceiling.
The orchestra treated “blue cathedral” as Higdon intended, capitalizing on her use of all orchestral instruments in portraying the immensity of the envisioned structure.
Denève, a native of France, also chose Claude Debussy's “La Mer” and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” for the bill. In addition, the orchestra took on Maurice Ravel’s challenging “Piano Concerto in G” with noted French pianist Jean-Ives Thibaudet.
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Thibaudet came to America and, at age 18, won the Young Concert Artists Auditions competition in New York City. His talent is immense, and it was aptly demonstrated on the Ravel work, which, from the beginning, poised Thibaudet on a mission to make the evening a triumph.
The lovely piano entrance in first movement changed into quick runs with the pianist bent over the keyboard. Lots of orchestra chromatics kept the music interesting. With the slow second movement, Thibaudet created a dreamy opening solo that moved into a lovely flute-piano duet.
Intricate, quiet rhythm work between English horn and piano kept the second movement interesting, but the orchestra’s wakeup call signaled a furious romp was about to begin in movement No. 3.
Denève and Thibaudet worked extremely well together in this last movement. Communication between the pair was measure to measure and the orchestra followed suit perfectly. Chromatic runs were kept exactly on track until the final chords came crashing down. Patrons immediately cheered and stood, offering long applause. Soloist and conductor were beaming on stage with the accolades.
“An American in Paris” needs no introduction. But the work is a challenge for the orchestra to play, as there are lots of small phrases shared among sections in quick order. It’s a challenge for orchestra and conductor to bring it off right.
Denève used his hands and arms to indicate exacting entrances, rhythm changes and dynamic ups and downs. The orchestra responded with amazing elasticity and sensitivity, marking every move in the score with perfection. The piece was a definite crowd pleaser and the orchestra had fun with it, too.
In fact, a smiling Denève singled out soloists and sections for recognition, which the crowd espoused. Denève then quieted the crowd, thanked them for the enthusiasm and offered an encore.
It was Leonard Bernstein’s "Overture to Candide" that set the crowd smiling and talking about the evening’s triumph on its way out of the hall.
If the Lied concert is any indication, Denève should be a striking success in the continuing, exemplary history of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.