By Jen Roberts
When you ask a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musician what their favorite thing about the SLSO is, they’ll almost invariably reply that it feels like a family. This season, the orchestra is excited to welcome several of its own into the soloist’s spotlight. Three musicians, Hannah Ji, Cally Banham, and frequent SLSO guest artist Peter Henderson, share insights on the music they’ll perform this season.
Violinist Hannah Ji will be performing Joseph Bologne’s Violin Concerto No. 2, October 7–8. Bologne, an early Black composer, is often compared to W.A. Mozart, whom he lived next to for three months in the Parisian neighborhood, Chaussée d’Antin. French concertgoers referred to Bologne as “Mozart Noir,” a problematic nickname. Bologne was a skilled violinist and composer and is considered to be the first Classical composer of African ancestry.
When Ji was assigned the solo, she was excited for the opportunity to play a composer she didn’t know much about. “It’s been amazing to learn about different BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] composers, and he is one of them. He’s incredible,” she says. The violin concerto will be Ji’s first solo performance with the SLSO, something she admits is both exciting and a little scary. “These are my colleagues who I respect,” she says. “As a newer member, to play a solo with them is nerve-wracking.” Because Ji was unfamiliar with the piece, she began her preparation by doing research and listening to existing recordings. The piece, Ji says, “is charming and uplifting—it’s very easy to listen to.”
When English horn player, Cally Banham, was first approached about performing James MacMillan’s The World’s Ransoming during the 2020/2021 season, she immediately said “yes.” She was then asked to listen to it a few times, all the way through, before committing to the solo. “They wanted to be sure that I knew what I was getting into because it’s quite difficult,” Banham recalls. “It’s a huge undertaking not just for the soloist, but for the orchestra, too.” The pandemic postponed the original performance, so Banham was thrilled when it was added to the 2022/2023 season. “I’ve been living with this possible performance for a long time.”
On February 10–11, MacMillan will conduct this piece alongside his Violin Concerto No. 2. Banham began her preparation by researching the piece, listening to recordings, and working out technical passages. “I’m trying to get them to a place where they’re really natural to me,” she says. As the concert nears, Banham says she’ll have to work on her strength and endurance by playing the piece through two to three times a day. “It’s going to be a marathon,” she laughs. “What I love most about this piece... the way he writes for the English horn is, in my view, just the right way. The expressive potential of the instrument really shines in these long, soaring passages that leap around and go high. He uses the whole range of the instrument well.”
Peter Henderson, a frequent guest pianist with the SLSO, 20-year resident of St. Louis, and husband to Associate Principal Second Violinist, Kristin Ahlstrom, “loves deep dives” into music. So when he was asked to play Joseph Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11, March 3–4, he dug in. “I’ve always admired Haydn. He was this really optimistic person who kept grinding at his craft,” says Henderson. Haydn grew up in a small Austrian village, but when his parents realized his musical talents, they agreed to let the six-year-old live with a cousin who was a choir master so he could receive proper music training. Haydn was forced to become a freelancer after his voice matured and he could no longer sing in the boys choir. It was this period of isolation which Haydn credits for his originality. “Haydn’s music balances this idea of conventional and classical with a little mischief, a little surprise, something unexpected,” says Henderson.
“In this piece there are two things that I really love. One is the effervescence of the outer movements. The first is buoyant, and the last movement is vivacious with incredible rhythmic energy and a little bit of quirky humor,” says Henderson. “But the middle movement is really the soul of the piece. It’s so sweet. It’s such a lyrical, loving kind of aria.”
This will be Henderson’s first time performing the piece, and he’s been listening to several recordings of Haydn’s complete piano music in preparation. For audiences, Henderson says, “Expect to be delighted. Haydn invites you into his world, but he’s not going to slap you across the face with his style. Instead it’s going to be gorgeous melodic ideas, beautiful rhythmic energy, perfectly poised instrumentation, brilliant writing for the keyboard, just everything perfectly in balance with a little sprinkle of magic and a touch of humor.”
In addition to these soloists, Principal Violist Beth Guterman Chu will perform Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote April 22–23 alongside cellist Joshua Roman. And, Concertmaster David Halen will perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4, K.218, on the “All Mozart” programs of December 9–11.
Jen Roberts is a freelance writer who is interested in the arts, coffee, and travel. She’s currently
writing a book on women in coffee, which you can learn more about at jen-roberts.com