By Tim Munro
For Stéphane Denève, each season has a big idea. A seed from which all of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's programming can take root, grow, and branch.
Erik Finley, the SLSO's Vice President and General Manager, is Stéphane's partner in the development of each season. Erik's long conversations with Stéphane—over several months, by email, over Skype, in-person—give the season its shape, character, and detail.
"Stéphane's big idea of 2022/2023," says Erik, "was the French word ailleurs. Loosely translated, the world means 'elsewhere,' or 'another place.' Stéphane and I began our conversations around the idea of 'journeying'—of traveling the world through music."
"The initial seed," he continues, "was this idea that—hopefully—the world continues to open up. Stéphane has often talked about it feeling like the new 'roaring '20s.'" The goal, says Erik, "was to make the world feel more connected through music.
Stéphane wanted to use ailleurs in many different ways. This richness and variety spurred Erik and Stéphane's conversations. "We talked about music opening up the world, elimination boundaries. We talked about music connecting us to people, culture, places, ideas, feeling, and experiences."
In person, Erik is often calm, composed. But as he digs into the detail of the 2022/2023 season, his voice picks up a note of excitement, his sentences start to run together.
"The SLSO will share deeply personal musical experiences from around the world. Like American composer Nathalie Joachim's Fanm d'Ayiti , exploring her Haitian heritage. And, on the same program, Antonin Dvorak exploring his Bohemian roots in his Eighth Symphony.
"Qigang Chen's L'Éloignement comes out of his experiences with Chinese folk music. His title is literally translated as 'elsewhere', but it is closer to 'distanced': a lost place that you're looking for."
Erik rushes on, talking about composer Gabriela Lena Frank's connection to her mother's native Peru, and Oswald Huỳnh's connection to Vietnam. "Oswalk is a student at the University of Missouri. We played his Gia Đình as part of a workshop for student composers last fall. Assistant Conductor, Stephanie Childress asked Oswald to expand his work, which is inspired by his Vietnamese background. "
Other programs explore musical experiences composers have had far from home. "In Escales, Jacques Ibert was writing about his experience on the Mediterranean coast, in Tunisia and Spain and Italy. Maurice Ravel's La Valse is not so much about Vienna the place, but the idea of a 'Viennese world'."
Even something as straightforward as a program of W.A. Mozart's symphonies has a connection to the theme. "Jane Glover conducts two symphonies—which are known as the 'Linz and 'Prague' symphonies—which are very much connected to these cities."
Erik zooms in on a program that conjures images of a place that is no longer in existence. "In his new work for the SLSO, James Lee III bring listeners to his image of Cahokia Mounds, the archeological remains of the pre-Columbian city that flourished just across the Mississippi River."
And there are works that explore places created entirely by imagination. "Mason Bates' Anthology of Fantastic Zoology takes us to this world of mythical animals, exploring it with thrillingly imaginative music. And we venture into space with Gustav Holst's The Planets, written before humans has ever left the Earth's atmosphere."
Importantly, the SLSO is exploring the possibility of its own journey in the 2022/2023 season. Tours take years of planning and "we started talking about an international tour soon after Stéphane become Music Director," Erik says
The orchestra last went on tour in 2017, a short trip to Spain. This time around, the SLSO hopes to visit storied halls in several European countries. "Stéphane has a close association with many of these cities and halls."
The tour serves important purposes. "It is a statement on an international level of what the city of St. Louis has to offer culturally and musically, that our region is home to one of the world's greatest orchestras, and celebrates the pride that the musicians have in what they're doing artistically. It also allows us to share the SLSO's flourishing musical relations with a new music director. It's also really exciting and healthy for the orchestra to hear themselves in other halls and engage with new audiences!"
The new season brings many regular guest artists back to St.Louis. These friends include conductors Hannu Lintu, John Storgårds, Nicholas McGegan, and Cristian Măcelaru, as well as pianist Kirill Gerstein and violinist James Ehnes.
But it also brings new faces. "I'm excited about the debut of Jonathon Heyward, a young conductor who is really getting some wonderful attention across Europe. And I was excited when Stéphane wanted to bring Jeanine De Bique, a soprano who will sing music by Francis Poulenc." Plus, pianist Alice Sara Ott plays Maurice Ravel: "Cristi Măcelaru was very excited to bring her Ravel to the SLSO."
One program promises a double debut. "Xian Zhang conducts music by Gioacchino and Ottorio Respighi, and pianist Marie-Ange Nguci plays Sergei Rachmaninoff. Nguci is the real deal. She's really special, and this might even be her orchestral debut in the United States."
Violinist Nicola Benedetti, an artist whose residency was delayed by the pandemic, returns with two contemporary concertos. "There will be 'fresh ink' with James MacMillan's brand-new concerto, and she plays Wynton Marsalis' concerto, which she has taken around the world.
Indeed, a quarter of the works on the season are by living composers. "There is a curiosity in our audience for new works," says Erik. "Stéphane says he believes that our art form lies in the development of beautiful repertoire, and this season proves it."
And there will be a very special part of the repertoire to revisit: Hector Berloiz's The Damnation of Faust, the last piece the SLSO rehearsed before the pandemic took hold. There was a groundswell of support to reschedule its performance. "It was an incredible experience for everyone. The cast was perfect. This piece is core to who Stéphane is." It was decided: whoever the stars aligned, it would happen again.
"And so," says Erik, smiling, "we are closing the season that way. The 2022/2023 season is about the world opening again, we wanted to end with this project—the last thing we did before the world changed"
Tim Munro is the SLSO's Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.