By CB Adams

On the 1988 U2 album “Rattle and Hum,” singer Bono introduced the band’s cover of “Helter Skelter” by saying, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” Although “Helter Skelter” may seem a strange way to begin a review of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Dec. 15 performance of A Gospel Christmas, it’s actually an apt comparison. The tsunami of seasonal carols and jingles that retailers start blasting in early fall threatens to steal our attention from the hymns and ecclesiastical music that examines – if not downright proclaims – the “reason for the season.”

A show like A Gospel Christmas aims to steal back holiday music – at least for one performance a year. The songs, like Michael Lawrence’s “Carol of Christmas,” Camille Saint-Saens’ “Praise Ye, the Lord of Hosts,” and the traditional “The First Noel” resonate more fully than songs about flying reindeer, mommy kissing Santa Claus or little fir trees who cry so much.

To borrow a quote from Stephen Hill, the host of the long-running radio program Hearts of Space, hymns “engage us on a deeper, more internal level when we simply open ourselves to the sound and listen with the heart.”

Kevin McBeth

There’s an unmatched power and vibrancy of human voices raised en masse, and the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus transformed Powell Hall into a sanctuary of soulful celebration. Conducted by Kevin McBeth, A Gospel Christmas was really three concerts woven into one. The IN UNISON Chorus provided the lion’s share of performances with songs that included the “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration,” the traditional “Beautiful City” and Kirk Franklin’s “Silver and Gold.”

Among all the excellent voices contributing to IN UNISON, the program included outstanding solos by several members, including soprano De-Rance Blaylock who performed “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and countertenor Tai Oney who performed “Mary Had A Baby.” “Praise Ye, The Lord of Hosts” from Saint-Saëns’ “Christmas Oratorio” received a rousing performance from IN UNISON’s Men’s Glee Club.

Early in the show, McBeth announced that IN UNISON’s founding director, Dr. Robert Ray, had passed away that day. Ray led the ensemble from its formation in 1994 through 2010 and shaped its distinct sound as it evolved into an essential choral group in the region. The evening was dedicated to Ray and celebrated his vision for the chorus, many members of which come from the IN UNISON Program partner churches.


The second concert within a concert was a sprinkling of songs by American singer, songwriter and pianist Sheléa Frazier, known professionally by the single moniker Sheléa. With a reputation as a “singer’s singer,” Sheléa has also portrayed gospel singer Dorinda Clark Cole in the 2020 Lifetime biopic, “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel.”

Both the IN UNISON Chorus and Sheléa could have carried the show singly, the combination, along with the SLSO, provided a lively cadence and welcome variety of material. Sheléa sauntered easily through chestnuts like Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” as well as one of her own compositions, the delightful “Don’t Wanna Wait ‘Til Christmas.”

Balancing out the program was the SLSO, which swelled Powell with wordless wonders such as the traditional “Overture of Joy (A Christmas Melody)” and Hugh Martin’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

In this season of aural plentitude, A Gospel Christmas provided a welcome respite from the jingle-jangle of more commercial holiday music – made all the more precious by both its impressive quality and one-night-only scarcity. I was reminded of an Elton John quote, “When in doubt, write a hymn.” To which I would add, “And then sing it out loud.” By the end of A Gospel Christmas, I felt that I had been satisfyingly “churched” and yearned to shout out, “Say amen, somebody!”

By Lynn Venhaus

What a weekend ahead – especially all the festivities to celebrate Halloween. Here’ s a round-up of events, movies, music, TV and more.

Local Spotlight: Our National Landmark

Our Gateway Arch was completed on Oct. 28 in 1965. America’s tallest monument, The Gateway to the West, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, is the grand symbol of our region and riverfront.

I was 10 when they put the final link in place. Now it’s 57! I remember coming home from college, and as soon as I saw the Arch, I knew I was home.

Here’s more from the History Channel about this day in history:

Movies: Slashfest at the Skyview Drive-In

Belleville Oct. 28 and 29, box office opens at 6 p.m.

Screen 1 – Family Slashfest – Hotel Transylvania PG 8:00 and Gremlins 2 PG13 9:40              Midnight – Rocky Horror Picture Show

Screen 2 – Hardcore Slashfest – Texas Chainsaw Massacre R 7:15, Friday the 13th 7: New Blood R 8:50, The Fog R 10:25 and Killer Klowns from Outer Space R 12:00

They will start the Hardcore Slashfest at 7:15 and the Family Slashfest will start at 8:00.  This is so they can play four movies on the Hardcore side. At midnight, you can choose to stay on screen 2 or move up to screen 1 to see RHPS.

Live and Local: Saint Charles Legends & Lanterns® is taking over Main Street this weekend – Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.  

More info:

Local Content: Broken Strings

The first episode of a planned local series on artists’ journeys as they search for harmony will be screened at The .ZACK, 3224 Locust Avenue, at 7 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday.

Created as a part of the Kranzberg Artist in Residency program, writer/director Catherine Dudley-Rose has gathered multiple local artists and activists. First one features Dr. Marty K. Casey, Don McClendon, Sydney Russell, and Chrissie Watkins along with supporting cast. Crew: cinematography by Mallory Ingles, edited by Abbey Heise, sound by Bailey Hilmes and assisted by Once Films, and the Regional Arts Commission. Find out more about the development of this community series and how you can participate. Tickets are $15.

More info:

Live: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra “Psycho”

Oct. 30, 7 p.m., Powell Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd.

SLSO is checking into the Bates Motel as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic psychological thriller “Psycho” will be on the big screen, and they will play Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score – with its shrieking strings and slashing chords – live.

Beforehand, a costume contest will take place in the foyer, with prizes for best overall, scariest and most creative.


Streaming: “Stars at Noon” on Hulu

Here’s PopLifeSTL film critic Alex McPherson’s review of “Stars at Noon,” currently streaming on Hulu.

TV Movies: Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, there is a new Christmas film to view. Here’s this weekend’s line-up:

Friday – A Cozy Christmas Inn
Saturday – Jolly Good Christmas
Sunday – Ghost of Christmas Always

Movie: “Decision to Leave”

Now playing at Plaza Frontenac, writer-director Park Chan-wook’s mystery-thriller uses his distinct visual style to weave a love story and murder case, with flashes of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and using nature as a character. The official South Korean selection for the Oscar’s Best International Feature, this will indeed be in the awards conversation at year’s end. Park won best director for this at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Here’s my review in the Webster-Kirkwood Times:

TV Mini-Series: “The White Lotus,” season 2

Sunday, 8 p.m., HBO

We move on to Sicily this time, for a take on the staff at an upscale resort and the wealthy guests who stay there. Cast includes Aubrey Plaza, F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli, and Haley Lu Richardson, with Jennifer Coolidge reprising her role as the ditzy socialite Tanya McQuoid.

Playlist: Million Dollar Quartet

With the death of Jerry Lee Lewis Friday, one of the pioneers of rock ‘n roll, I am reminded of the one historic night where Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Lewis gathered at Sun Studios in Memphis for one heckuva recording session on Dec. 4, 1956.

The basis for a 20120 jukebox musical

It has played at the Fox Theatre (2013) and at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (, and will be part of Stages St. Louis’ 37th season next summer. Here is the Broadway cast performing at the 2010 Tony Awards. Levi Kreis, who played Jerry Lee Lewis, won the Tony for best featured actor in a musical.

Word: Stephen King

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

By CB Adams

It goes against form to start a symphony review (or any review for that matter) by pointing out the limits of words to describe a performance. Even the inestimable writer Virginia Woolf, when attempting to describe paintings in a 1920s essay, wrote, “But words, words! How inadequate you are! How weary one gets of you.” If words can fail the masterful Woolf, there’s not much hope for the rest of us – though she more than adequately spent the rest of the essay brilliantly describing the art, anyway.

Still, words are our medium. Thus, perhaps the best that can be said for the Friday, Oct. 21 performance of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, directed by Stéphane Denève, is: You had to be there. The same could no doubt be said for the Oct. 22 performance, too.

If you were there, you know how the orchestra, along with the SLSO Chorus, performed a powerfully emotional quadtych of complementary compositions (two by Francis Poulenc, and one each by Florent Schmitt and Reena Esmail). Denève has an avowed passion for Poulenc, a sentiment he reinforced in his introduction to the evening’s performance. “I looooove Poulenc!” he proclaimed from the podium.

Poulenc comprised the second half of the evening’s bill, and Denève avoided giving the Schmitt and Esmail compositions short shrift by describing the interconnected themes of love, faith, dedication and sacrifice. The well-considered choices to explore these themes added up to an entirely fulfilling and engaging experience while locally premiering Esmail’s “Testament” (From “Vishwas”) and the 12-movement “Stabat Mater” by Poulenc.

Jeanine De Bique

The strength of this concert was, at a macro level, the focus on love, faith, dedication and sacrifice. That focus was often filtered through a religious perspective. “Testament,” the final movement of a three-part composition for classical Indian dancer and orchestra, illuminates the fervent belief and hunger strike of a 15th-century poet.

Schmitt’s “The Tragedy of Salome,” is a symphonic suite that presents the sacrifice of virginal innocence, exemplified by its femme fatale protagonist, Salome of Biblical fame. The piece climaxes with a Stravinskian crash in the “Dance of Fear” movement.

Poulenc’s “Stabat Mater” uses the setting of a 13th-century hymn in Latin to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s reaction to the crucifixion of Jesus. The final scene from his opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites” presents a cast of nuns conversing about “anguish, fear, and the human condition.” It ends with their systematic beheadings, complete with guillotine sound effect.

Heavy stuff – indeed. But words fall short of the ultimately cathartic and uplifting nature of the SLSO’s performance. It was akin to attending a Greek tragedy. As Friedrich Nietzsche has observed: experiencing tragedy through art can lead to a meaningful affirmation of our own existence.

The success of this slate of compositions relies on the pieces themselves, the interplay of styles, themes and influences, and the performance by the SLSO and chorus. The sequence of pieces began with a religious person’s hunger strike, continued with the decapitation of John the Baptist, focused on the intense loss of Jesus’ crucifixion and concluded with the execution of 16 nuns. Although this description might sound unappealingly grisly, it was anything but. In sum, it was a satisfying, cerebral experience.

The orchestra, under Denève’s direction, was clean, confident and balanced – as usual. The “exotic” elements in the Esmail and Schmitt compositions were not exaggerated. Neither were the 16 uses of the guillotine sound effect during the “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” The effect was quite similar to the one used during The Muny’s production of “Sweeney Todd” this past summer.  

The addition of the chorus, guest directed by Scott Allen Jarrett, for the Poulenc pieces was a welcome addition and filled the stage with an aural presence that only a large choir can bring.

Reena Esmail

The highlight of the performance was certainly the SLSO debut of soprano Jeanine De Bique. Clad in blood red gown among the more soberly black dress of the rest of the musicians, De Bique delivered a beautiful and commanding performance, especially during the “Stabat Mater.”

The choice of works was innovative and balanced, and it certainly fits within this season’s overarching goal of journeying the world through music – compositions and musicians.

Through the fervency expressed in the works individually stood on their own, it was the cohesive ways the fit together to create a whole experience that proved most successful.

By CB Adams
Suspension of disbelief is a term usually associated with works of fiction, film or theater. It’s a term that got its start way back in 1817 when Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “…suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

It’s high time we apply this term to music. This was certainly applicable to the Saint Louis Symphony’s diptych program on Oct. 15-16 of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1. When a conductor and orchestra can perform in a way that disappears themselves, that’s suspending the reality that people are only just rubbing strings and blowing into mouthpieces.

The program, guest conducted by Hannu Lintu, was worthy of Coleridge’s “poetic faith” with the shared maelstrom of themes that rose and fell in tandem – a perfect storm. The suspension of disbelief came after I forgot that there were musicians on stage and entered into my own reveries elicited by the drama of music itself. In service to this review, I had to keep reminding myself to stop my mind’s reverie and pay attention to who was doing what on stage.

Some of this is attributable to conductor Lintu, a regular guest artist with the SLSO since 2013. I was reminded of Lintu as I watched a sneak peek of the new film “Tár.” In it, a world-class conductor played by Cate Blanchett says, “If you want to dance the mask, you must service the composer. You’ve got to sublimate yourself…You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself.”
That might be a bit hyperbolic, but Lintu certainly serviced the strengths of a program that put Rachmaninoff and Corigliano – the old and the new – into lockstep.

Lintu was sometimes metronomic, sometimes feet-together obedient and sometimes commanding, but always he was the conduit for music to swell unimpeded over him and into the audience.

Also in service to the music was Gerstein, the featured pianist on Rachmaninoff’s No. 2. Gerstein delivered a taut, polished, restrained performance that avoided any exaggeration that the composition can encourage. Just think back to 1975 and Eric Carmen’s hit “All By Myself,” which liberally borrowed from No. 2’s Adagio sostenuto. Or the soundtracks to “Brief Encounter” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Gerstein’s performance was noteworthy for his ability to balance lyrical nuance and athletic discipline to a well-known and -loved composition.

A great performance is always a team effort, and the orchestra rippled through Rachmaninoff’s alternations of sweet melancholy and darkness. On par with Gerstein’s solos were performed by Matthew Roitstein (principal flute), Scott Andrews (principal clarinet) and Thomas Jöstlein (associate principal horn).

Creating a program that positions a beloved classic with a newer composition is to risk a “bait and switch” response. But when it works, it can work charms as did placing Rachmaninoff and Corigliano, the latter of which is a celebrated orchestral composer whose works have been performed by the best international ensembles. This was my introduction to Corigliano and I’m all the better for it. The genesis
of Symphony No. 1 was Corigliano’s deeply personal response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but the music enabled me to surf the dramatic crests and delicate troughs of its waves.

Perhaps because of the SLSO’s fine performance that relied on the talents of approximately 110 onstage musicians , I can imagine only listening to No. 1 live. It’s hard to think of a recording and stereo system capable of presenting this composition in all its highly charged power and range, evident even in the title of the opening movement, “Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance” and in Corigliano’s description of the second movement’s ending as a “brutal scream” and the Epilogue’s ending with a cello duet performing a
slow diminuendo that shimmers with a single, fading note.

That cello duet, performed with grace and emotion by Danny Lee (principal cello) and Melissa Brooks (assistant principal cello), was a highlight of the entire performance, made stronger by ending the program of poetic faith and promise.

Hannu Lintu, guest conductor

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

Every so often, The Muny and the St. Louis Symphony come together like Peaches & Herb: “Reunited, and it feels so good…”

These two cultural cousins know how to celebrate. That was definitely the vibe at Power Hall on October 2 when these two local cultural titans combined talents for “A Little Sondheim Music,” a concert to celebrate composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a titan of different sort. The last time the Symphony and Muny combined forces was to celebrate the The Muny’s 100th birthday.

With Mike Isaacson, the Muny’s Artistic Director and Executive Producer, at the helm as host and master of ceremony, the lively event perked along through a well-curated roster of songs from Sondheim’s career. This was no jukebox jaunt through Sondheim’s songbook. It was a journey into Sondheim’s impressive range of songs and characters, some of which aren’t among his greatest hits.

So, along with the familiar titles from “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Company” and “Sweeney Todd,” the audience was also to treated to selections from the lesser-known “Saturday Night,” “Evening Primrose” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” Another entire concert or two could be created from Sondheim’s deep cuts from other shows. To borrow a line from “Send In the Clowns, “…well, maybe next year.” (hint, hint).

In his opening, Isaacson quoted the three guiding principles that Sondheim hewed to during his career: content dictates form, less is more and God is in the details. To which Sondheim also added, “All in service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.”

Bryonha Marie in rehearsal. Julie Merkel photo.

Clarity ruled the afternoon performance and elevated the achievements of Sondheim rather than mourn his passing last November at age 91. Lending their vocal talents to the celebration were some of Broadway’s brightest babies:  Ben Davis, Bryonha Marie, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner and Elizabeth Stanley. Their talents were on full display, whether performing individually, in duets or as an ensemble. And it would be unfair if not impossible to cite any one performance as a standout because they were all standouts.

Ask 10 audience members what their favorite was, and you’d probably get 10 different answers. My own personal favorite was Skinner’s interpretation of “Send In the Clowns.” Her use of pauses and emphasis provided new insight into the lyrics’ meanings and to the rueful ruminations of the character Desirée in “A Little Night Music.”  I’m just a sucker for that song.

Clarity was certainly one of the concert’s throughlines. Songs such as ”If You Can Find Me, I’m Here,” sung by Scott, and “Broadway Baby,” sung by Marie, exemplify Sondheim’s ability to pack an entire show’s worth of characterization into a single lyric. And Scott interpreted his song by channeling an inner Dustin Hoffman, ala “The Graduate,” and Marie delivered sass, sashay and plenty of boop-oop-a-doop to hers.  

Each Sondheim song is its own mini-musical. All of the performers tapped into this with brio and moxie, moving across the narrow strip of stag and conjuring the spirit of the actual musicals. Even if you didn’t know the show, you understood it from the song itself. That’s part Sondheim genius, part musical magic and part high-caliber performance from the artists.

Rehearsal photo of the two Bens – Davis and Whiteley. Photo by Julie Merkel.

Cases in point: Davis, fresh off this last summer’s successful Muny production of “Sweeney Todd,” reprised his take on the chilling “My Friends” by pivoting from fetishistic heavy petting of cutlery to the abrupt declaration, “At last, my arm is complete again!” Dexter should be so lucky.

And Stanley provided a disarmingly plaintive interpretation of “In Buddy’s Eyes” from “Follies” that reworked the breathless suffering usually associated with this song – written for an older character – into an ironic conscience examination of someone younger.

Also providing clarity to the concert was the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Ben Whiteley, who has long been a member of the Muny artistic family. Host Isaacson thanked Whiteley “…who really created this program, bringing his incredible knowledge and passion to the creation of this program.”

The orchestra launched the performance with the opening overture to “Merrily We Roll Along” and was featured post-intermission with the overture to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” as well as a smooth and graceful “Night Waltz” from “A Little Night Music” in the second half. These were a potent reminder of the beauty of Sondheim’s compositions and how much a fine performance of them deepens their impact.

Also in the second half was a special appearance by St. Louis native Ken Page who sang “Anyone Can Whistle” with a sage-like preciousness that did the Old Deuteronomy cat proud.

As the concert drew to a close, Isaacson quoted Sondheim who answered an interviewer’s question about what he hoped his legacy would be. “Oh, I just would like the shows to keep getting done. Whether on Broadway, or in regional theaters, or schools or communities, I would just like the stuff to be done. Just done and done and done and done and done.”

With a concert like “A Little Sondheim Music,” The Muny and the Symphony have ensured that at least one of those done’s was accomplished – and done to perfection. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Featured Photo: Ben Whiteley, Michael Baxter, Nicolas Valdez, Bryonha Marie, Ben Davis, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner.. Photo by Julie Merkel.

Matthew Scott in rehearsal. Photo by Julie Merkel.

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

Collaborative Concert “A Little Sondheim Music” Oct 2. at Powell Hall

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and The Muny announced details about their latest collaboration: the upcoming concert honoring the late Stephen Sondheim, A Little Sondheim Music on Sunday, October 2, at 3:00pm. Sondheim, who passed away in November 2021 at age 91, is credited with reinventing the American musical, both as a lyricist and composer, throughout his prolific career.

Hosted by Mike Isaacson, Artistic Director and Executive Producer of The Muny, with musical staging by Michael Baxter, and conducted by Muny veteran Ben Whiteley, the concert includes selections from many of Sondheim’s most beloved musicals, including Merrily We Roll AlongSondheim On SondheimInto the WoodsFolliesA Little Night MusicCompany, and Sweeney Todd. All lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, with various arrangers and orchestrators.

Performing with the SLSO are several veteran theater performers, whose credits include Broadway musicals, West End productions, Muny productions, television, and more: Ben Davis, Bryonha Marie, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner, and Elizabeth Stanley. Broadway veteran and St. Louis native Ken Page also makes a special appearance.

Collaborations between the two organizations date back to at least 1919, when the SLSO provided entertainment for patrons of The Muny during summer performances including Robin Hood and The Mikado. The tradition of collaboration returned in 1994 when the SLSO performed on The Muny stage in a celebration concert titled “Gateway to the Gold,” a salute to the U.S. Olympic Festival. The SLSO and The Muny last performed together in 2018 as part of The Muny’s centennial celebration.

Tickets are on sale now for this unique concert partnership between two of St. Louis’ most storied and celebrated arts institutions. Tickets can be purchased by visiting or by calling the SLSO Box Office at 314-534-1700.

Mike Isaacson

A Little Sondheim Music: The Muny and SLSO Celebrate Stephen Sondheim

Sunday, October 2, 2022, 3:00pm

Ben Whiteley, conductor

Ben Davis, vocals
Bryonha Marie, vocals
Matthew Scott, vocals
Emily Skinner, vocals
Elizabeth Stanley, vocals
With special appearance by Ken Page

Mike Isaacson, host

Artist Bios:

Ben Davis recently received critical acclaim as Sweeney Todd in the Muny’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Davis received a Tony Honor for his work as Marcello in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Boheme. His extensive credits, spanning from Broadway to London, include Encores! Call Me Madam opposite Carmen Cusack, Dear Evan Hansen, Violet, A Little Night MusicLes MisérablesThe Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate for the BBC at London’s Royal Albert Hall and NBC’s, Annie Live. Concert credits include Philly Pops, RTÉ Orchestra, Tanglewood, Caramoor, and many others.

Bryonha Marie

Bryonha Marie has rapidly established herself as one of the brightest young stars currently on Broadway and in the classical crossover arena. Best known for her tour de force Broadway performance in Prince of Broadway, a career retrospective of the work of Harold Prince, Marie has also thrilled Broadway audiences as Serena in Porgy & Bess. Other Broadway credits include After Midnight (featured and principal cover for Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, k.d. lang, and Fantasia), the revival of Ragtime (Sarah’s Friend), and The Book of Mormon.

Matthew Scott has performed as Adam Hochberg in An American In Paris on Broadway and the National Tour; Sondheim On Sondheim with Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams; and A Catered AffairJersey Boys, and Grand Horizons. On the West End he has performed as Lee in I Loved Lucy at the Arts Theatre. Regional credits include The Light In The Piazza (Barrymore Award); Saturday NightBeachesCompanySide by Side by SondheimChaplin (San Diego Critics Nomination), A Wonderful Life, RagtimeMy Fair LadyCarouselWest Side Story (Kevin Kline Award Nomination), Legally BlondeSwing!Les MiserablesSunset Boulevard, and Mamma Mia.

Emily Skinner has established herself as one of Broadway’s most engaging and versatile performers. She was most recently seen in Barrington Stage’s production of A Little Night Music where she received rave reviews for her fresh take on Desiree Armfeldt. Previously she appeared in the Broadway-bound musical Once Upon a One More Time at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, and on Broadway as Georgia Holt, Cher’s Mother, in The Cher Show.

Heralded as one of the “Breakout Stars of 2020” by The New York Times, Elizabeth Stanley received Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, and a Grammy Award for her recent performance as Mary Jane Healy in the musical Jagged Little Pill, inspired by the music of Alanis Morissette, book by Diablo Cody, and directed by Diane Paulus. Stanley has dazzled Broadway audiences as Claire De Loone in the revival of On the Town (Drama Desk Nomination), Dyanne in Million Dollar Quartet, Allison in Cry Baby, and April in the Tony Award-winning revival of Company.

Ken Page is a St. Louis native with a career spanning over 45 years. He is most widely known as the voice of “Oogie Boogie” in the Tim Burton/Disney film The Nightmare Before Christmas and has recreated his role in sold out concerts live to film at The Hollywood Bowl on four occasions as well as at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, Tokyo, Glasgow, London (with the London Philharmonic Orchestra), and Dublin. Broadway/UK credits include Guys & DollsAin’t Misbehavin’ (Emmy-winning NBC special, Drama Desk Award-Best Actor, Grammy Award), Cats as Old Deuteronomy (Original Broadway Cast, London Video Cast, Grammy Award), The WizAin’t Nothin’ But the BluesWizard of OzChildren of Eden (London West End Original Cast), My One and Only (London Palladium), Mr. Wonderful (Theatre Royal Drury Lane), and The Little Mermaid (Hollywood Bowl).


About the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Celebrated as a leading American orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is the second-oldest orchestra in the country, marking its 143rd year with the 2022/2023 season and its fourth with Music Director Stéphane Denève. The SLSO maintains its commitment to artistic excellence, educational impact, and community collaborations, honoring its mission of enriching lives through the power of music.

The SLSO serves as a convener of individuals, creators, and ideas, and is committed to building community through compelling and inclusive musical experiences. As it continues its longstanding focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, and access, the SLSO embraces its strengths as a responsive, nimble organization, while investing in partnerships locally and elevating its presence globally. For more information, visit

About The Muny

The Muny’s mission is to enrich lives by producing exceptional musical theatre, accessible to all, while continuing its remarkable tradition in Forest Park. The country’s largest outdoor musical theatre produces seven world-class musicals each year and welcomes over 400,000 theatregoers over our seven-show season. Now celebrating 104 seasons in St. Louis, The Muny remains one of the premier institutions in musical theatre. 

The Muny

Appointments made to Principal Flute, Associate Principal Viola, Associate Principal Timpani/Section Percussion, and Second Bassoon positions

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Stéphane Denève are pleased to announce the appointments of four new full-time musicians as the SLSO begins its 2022/2023 season, the orchestra’s 143rd.

The SLSO’s 2022/2023 season begins in mid-September with the annual free community concert in Forest Park. Throughout the season, Denève and the SLSO perform 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. 

The SLSO’s new musicians are:

Julia Paine, Second Bassoonist, joins the SLSO following appearances with a variety of orchestras including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony, Charlotte Symphony, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and Oregon Symphony. A graduate of the University of Miami and the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Paine is a native of the Chicago suburbs.

Paine succeeds Felicia Foland, who held the Second Bassoon position for 31 seasons until her retirement at the conclusion of the 2021/2022 season.

Kevin Ritenauer, Associate Principal Timpanist/Section Percussionist and the Paul A. and Ann S. Lux Chair, was appointed to the SLSO following four seasons as a percussion fellow at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida. He has performed around the country with orchestras including The Cleveland Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony. He received his Master of Music from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Ritenauer succeeds Tom Stubbs, who held the Associate Principal Timpani position for 51 years prior to retirement in 2021.

Matthew Roitstein, Principal Flutist and the Herbert C. and Estelle Claus Chair, joins the SLSO after eight seasons as the Associate Principal Flutist of the Houston Symphony. He also held positions in the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and the Sarasota Opera Orchestra. Roitstein has performed as guest principal flute with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and River Oaks Chamber Orchestra. He has also taught extensively in the United States as well as throughout South and Central America. Roitstein received bachelor’s degrees in architecture and music from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master of Music at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.

Roitstein assumes the position formerly held by Principal Flutist Mark Sparks from 2000 to 2021.

Alejandro Valdepeñas, Associate Principal Violist, enjoys a multi-faceted career as a violinist and violist. He has recorded with the Amici Chamber Ensemble and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Chamber Soloists. He has spent multiple summers as a violinist with the Santa Fe Opera and has also performed with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. In the summers, Valdepeñas has performed at the Aspen Music Festival and School and Norfolk Chamber Music Festival at Yale. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Valdepeñas made his solo debut on violin at age 9 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Valdepeñas succeeds longtime Associate Principal Violist Kathleen Mattis, who retired in September 2019.

About the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Celebrated as a leading American orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is the second-oldest orchestra in the country, marking its 143rd year with the 2022/2023 season and its fourth with Music Director Stéphane Denève. The SLSO maintains its commitment to artistic excellence, educational impact, and community collaborations, honoring its mission of enriching lives through the power of music.

The SLSO serves as a convener of individuals, creators, and ideas, and is committed to building community through compelling and inclusive musical experiences. As it continues its longstanding focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, and access, the SLSO embraces its strengths as a responsive, nimble organization, while investing in partnerships locally and elevating its presence globally. For more information, visit

By C.B. Adams

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

– “In Memoriam:27”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

To key off Tennyson’s philosophical proposition, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s “Awakenings,” at the Loretto-Hilton Center’s Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre through June 25, explores a similar notion. If you were a patient trapped for decades by encephalitis lethargica , spending your waking moments in constant stupor and inertia, would you agree to allow a doctor like the neurologist Oliver Sacks to experimentally administer a drug called levodopa, or L Dopa, that could alleviate the disease’s debilitating effects? And, would you consent if you knew the risks – that the effects might not last long and that you would still suffer, like a sort of Rip Van Winkle, from spending decades isolated from the world’s events and your own maturity and development?

Is it better, then, to have been awakened than not at all?

 That’s a powerful philosophical question dreamed up in Sack’s book “Awakenings” that presented a series of fascinating case reports of patients trapped by encephalitis lethargica. It was also dreamed up into the eponymous Hollywood film (starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), a documentary, a ballet and a play by Harold Pinter. Sacks himself dreamed it could even be this opera, a pandemic delayed premiere by OTSL this season. 

Andres Acosta and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

This production draws the audience into the clinical but dreamlike world even before the score begins. The opening set evokes an impersonal, sterile hospital setting as nurses slowly wheel in slumped patients behind a series of moveable glass walls. Though not “pretty,” the harsh, set design by Allen Moyer is visually affecting and well-matched to the opera’s melancholic intensity (including a fantastic use of video projections by Greg Emetaz), especially as illuminated by Christoper Akerlind’s lighting designs.

The “Awakenings” score, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Kalb, is excellent if not exactly memorable. The music weaves around the characters and action without calling attention to itself.

Baritone Jarrett Porter sings Dr. Sacks, and his rich voice is well-matched to the demands of the role as a deeply empathetic caregiver. Porter’s voice is well-matched to  the bass-baritone of  David Pittsinger, who voices Sacks’s naysaying boss, Dr. Podsnap. Pittsinger’s presence and deep voice provide believable authority.

One of the key reasons “Awakenings” shines is the opera’s balancing of multiple “awakenings” by Sacks, who grapples with his sexuality in a subplot, as well as three patients that representing the 20 in real life. They provide more than yeoman’s work as they must sit in wheelchairs – all trembles and contortions – and then transform into walking/talking human beings then return to their un-awakened states.

Susannah Phillips and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Marc Molomot, tenor, plays a middle-aged Leonard, whose aging mother (sung beautifully and dutifully by Katherine Goeldner) has been reading to him every day since he succumbed to his condition. Molomot confidently provides a Leonard who hasn’t emotionally matured since adolescence. He’s a boy in a man’s body, which makes life exciting, challenging and ultimately disturbing. Molomot plays Leonard with aplomb.

One of the highlights of “Awakenings” is Leonard’s duet with Rodriguez, his male nurse, sung by the tenor Andres Acosta. Acosta proves there are no parts too small to stand out.

Another of the trio of patients is Rose, engagingly sung by Susannah Phillips. Rose is an optimistic yet dreamy character, still living in an interrupted past that includes a long-gone love. Phillips’s performance and engaging voice make it easy to start identifying with her fairytale outlook and then mourn as she returns to her former state.

Completing the trio is Miriam H, sung by soprano Adrienne Danrich. Miriam’s story is as unique and ultimately tragic as her cohorts. Like Rose, Miriam’s story moves from silence to astonishment as she discovers that her family considered her dead and that she has a daughter and even granddaughter. Danrich’s performance and beautiful voice elevate the tragedy of her return to silence.

As directed by James Robinson, “Awakenings” is a compelling experience – one that calls to mind Bob Dylan’s Series of Dreams:  “…Thinking of a series of dreams / Where the time and the tempo drag, / And there’s no exit in any direction…”

Long after the performances fade, the philosophical and ethical questions posed by “Awakenings” linger. Would have the lives of Mirian, Rose and Leonard (and perhaps even Sacks himself) have been better if they hadn’t been intervened by L Dopa? And who should be allowed to make that choice? One person’s dream may be another’s nightmare.

Jarrett Porter as Dr Oliver Sacks. Photo by Eric Woolsey.