By CB Adams

Upon first reviewing the selections for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s second performance of the 2022-23 season, it might have seemed like a concert designed by Debbie Downer.

Two of the pieces, Tōru Takemitsu’s “Night Signal” and Qigang Chen’s “L’Éloignement” (The Distancing), are neither well-known nor necessarily upbeat sounding based on their titles. And the better known Mahler work, “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”), is an hour-long cycle of six song movements that explore themes and variations on the shuffling off of this mortal coil, i.e., life and death.

But not all first thoughts are best thoughts.

Stéphane Denève, Music Director, and Erik Finley, development partner and the SLSO’s Vice President and General Manager, chose a more sophisticated and ultimately uplifting curation of pieces chosen to be experienced in person in a concert hall. This concert was designed to be both self-contained and part of the overall arc of the entire season – to experience through music the interconnectedness of the world.

To use a twenty-five-cent word: it was polyphony. To quote the Sherman Brothers’ Disneyland boat ride ditty, “It’s a small world after all.” Either way, Denève and SLSO delivered an exquisite performance from first note to last.

The performance began with the brass section standing in a line behind the strings. This arrangement provided a potent visual clue that Takemitsu’s “Night Signal” was about to emit something out of the ordinary. According to The Guardian, “Takemitsu’s understated and crystalline compositions combine elements of his own Japanese traditions with the western modernism he loved so much.” That modernism included American jazz, elements of which are woven into “Night Signal” like “tsuzure-nishiki,” the Japanese term for polychrome tapestry.

“Night Signal” was unusual in another way. At the three-minute mark, a time when listeners are just getting settled into a piece, it was over. It was brief only in duration. It made a complete, minimalist statement unto itself while serving as a fanfare for the pieces that followed. Roger Kaza, principal horn, and the entire horn section rendered the score with a nimbleness and restraint.

The orchestra then settled into place for Qigang Chen’s “L’Éloignement.”  Chen is a Chinese-born French composer whose credits include symphonies, chamber pieces, film scores and songs, including “You and Me,” the theme song for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics (he also served as music director). Moving from “Night Signal” to the string-only “L’Éloignement” was a logically smooth transition into the latter’s bustling, cinematic phrases woven with a touching Chinese folk love song.

“Night Signal” and “L’Éloignement” were clearly selected and sequenced because they share a delicate aesthetic melding for western and eastern influences. These influences were pleasing and expanding in the effects. The pieces were expert choices to demonstrate polyphony at its most subtle and worldliness. And Danny Lee, principal cellist, and Beth Guterman, principal violist, proved in their performances why they deserved to sit at the head of their sections. 

Many who attended the Sept. 22 or 23 performances probably came for “Das Lied von der Erde,” described by Leonard Bernstein as Mahler’s “greatest symphony.” Such a listy designation may be debatable, but “The Song of the Earth” is almost universally considered Mahler’s most autobiographical work.

It’s a symphonic cycle of six songs for alto and tenor voices and orchestra. Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano, and Clay Hilley (making his SLSO debut), tenor, were the soloists for these performances.

So, what’s this piece got to do with the intermingling of western and eastern musical influences? The answer is not really sonically. It’s somewhat part academic and definitely part Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The source material is a bit removed as it was inspired by an anthology of Chinese poems translated into German. This text was further translated into English and projected during the performance. The result was often more Germanic sturm und drang (and drinking), especially during Hilley’s songs.

“’Das Lied von der Erde’” is about loss, grief, memory, disintegration, and, ultimately, transfiguration,” according to Robert Greenberg, a noted historian, composer, pianist and author. And it’s those themes that make a compelling case for including it with the preceding compositions rather than Mahler’s masterful use of eastern pentatonic scales.

Mahler’s “song symphony” is essentially a two-part symphony with six songs that explore the phases of life (songs 1-5) and the transition to death (song 6). O’Connor and Hilley were splendid and powerful in distinctively different ways. They were definitely a study in contrast, with Hilley storming through his songs with operatic passion while O’Connor presented her lyrics with refined, gossamer restraint. This binary approach aligned with – mirrored – the song symphony’s themes of life and death, light and dark, conflict and acceptance.

And it’s that last word – acceptance – that ended the performance so satisfyingly. As O’Connor sang “Der Abschield” (“The Farewell”), her voice led toward the ending that Mahler intended: acceptance of death as well as acceptance of the pairing of these compositions into a cohesive experience.

By CB Adams
It’s been more than a week since the Saint Louis Symphony’s (SLSO) opening performance, the first salvo in the 2022-23 season. Across the St. Louis cultural landscape, as we have emerged from the isolating effects of the pandemic, the last several
months have seemed like a time of emergence, anticipation and expectation for theater, live music and the visual arts. The pandemic was not a pleasant experience, but for some, this hunker-down time was like a creative chrysalis or inspiring incubator.

Such seems to have been the case for Stéphane Denève, Music Director of the Symphony, and his development partner, Erik Finley, the SLSO’s Vice President and General Manager. “Stéphane’s big idea for 2022/23 was the French word ailleurs,” Finley is quoted in the
Symphony’s Playbill. “Loosely translated, the word means ‘elsewhere,’ or ‘another place.’ Stéphane and I began our conversation around the idea of ‘journeying’ – of traveling the world through music.”

The onus on reviewers is usually to provide one’s critique like a loaf of freshly baked bread – best hot from the oven (i.e., performance). But some reviews benefit from a little more time, more of a stew, perhaps (to continue the culinary metaphor). Such is the case
with the SLSO’s prix fixe season opener that included Antonín Dvořák (best known), Jacques Ibert (less well-known) and Nathalie Joachim (perhaps the least known, especially outside of the symphony world).

Preparing for the opening performance, I ranked the pieces in that order. Yet, with the passage of some time, that order has been upended – at least in terms of what has had the most staying power. And that’s thanks to that sense of ailleurs, especially Joachim’s
“Fanm d’Ayiti” (“Women of Haiti”) Suite, which was sandwiched between the Ibert and Dvořák pieces.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Joachim, a Brooklyn-born self-identified Haitian- American who is a Grammy-nominated composer, vocalist and flutist whose works range from classical to pop and indie-rock, and whose affiliations include Oregon Symphony
(where she is the Artistic Partner) and the flute duo, Flutronix (which she co-founded). She’s also a newly appointed faculty member at Princeton University.

The full-length “Fanm d’Ayiti” (2019), which earned the Grammy nomination, consists of 11 pieces for flute, voice (in “kreyól” or creole), string quartet and some electronics. noted that “Fanm d’Ayiti” “…constitutes an ethnographic research
undertaking.” It is based on Joachim’s conversations with family members and others in the Haitian community, as well as additional field research.

“I found such a kinship in their stories as artists, and specifically female artists, really trying to make it in a field where women’s voices are ever-present but really under- represented,” Joachim was quoted by

On paper, Joachim’s project seemed a risky choice for the SLSO because of its ethnographic, almost academic, approach. “Yes,” I thought, “but is it any good?” My skepticism was almost immediately allayed within the first minutes of the three selections: “Suite pou Dantam,” “Madan Bellegrade” and “Fanm d’Ayiti.”

What remains of this performance is a warm sense of being transported to the Haitian country, of “being there.” Joachim’s voice was smooth and sweet, as was her flute playing, and the orchestra’s performance was intermingled with recorded voices of her maternal grandmother and of an all-girls choir from her family’s hometown.

Overall, it was a visceral experience, not dryly academic. It’s no wonder, then, that the performance earned a mid-concert standing ovation. Because “Fanm d’Ayiti” is the least well-known of the evening’s music makes it deserving of the lion’s share of coverage. It was an important choice, and based on its success, it helps strengthen the relationship – the trust – that should exist between music director and those who support the SLSO. It’s as if Denève and Finley were saying, “Trust us, you’ll like this.”

SLSO at Powell Hall

They weren’t wrong with “Fanm d’Ayiti.” The success of “Fanm d’Ayiti” was elevated by the works that surrounded it, forming a
musical travelogue that transported the audience to the Czech Republic, nee Bohemia, and ports of call in the Mediterranean. The combination integrated thoughtfully well, especially as it relates to the notion of ailleurs.

The evening began with Ibert’s 1922 suite “Escales” (“Ports of Call”). “Escales” is a story in three movements that begins at sea and explores the soundscapes of three ports of call, “Rome—Palermo,” “Tunis—Nefta” and “Valencia.” Denève directed Ibert’s colorful suite with a vigorous, cinematic soundtrack sensibility. Ibert’s score made fine use of the skills of Jelena Dirks, principal oboist.

The evening concluded with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, Op. 88. The names of symphony’s four movements (Allegro con brio, Adagio, Allegretto grazioso and Allegro ma non troppo) offer some indication of why this was a fine way to end the evening with
an energetic, cheerful, exuberant and poetic performance. Denève and D (let’s call them the Two D’s) drew upon the SLSO’s strong woodwinds during the numerous solo passages.

In her Playbill introduction, SLSO President and CEO, Marie-Hélène Bernard, wrote, “We believe that music is a universal language and in creating an environment where music is accessible to all. This is made possible through a more welcoming concert experience and for new and returning audience; broader programming that makes the orchestra a vital part of everyone’s life…”

Every journey begins with a first step, and the opening performance of this new season was indeed a terrific first step toward that ideal of ailleurs. There is no substitute for experiencing a live orchestral performance – especially one as diverse and satisfying as
this one. It’s amazing to view the musicians assembled on Powell Hall’s stage and to consider all that practice, practice, practice that led them to this point. And for the next several months, it’s up to us to listen, listen, listen.

SLSO Conductor Stephane Deneve