By Tim Munro
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Stéphane Denève and Vice President and General Manager Erik Finley take us behind the curtain of the 2021/2022 season. They chat about rebounding, about community, about new artistic friends, and about making lots and lots of lists.
Spirit of adventure
Stéphane Denève: The definition of resilience is the capacity to quickly recover—to spring back to shape. In this past year, the SLSO had to adapt, change plans, try different things. In a normal year we have months or years to prepare for a concert. This year, sometime there were just days to readjust.
Erik Finley: And the 21/22 season celebrates this resilience: not just of our community, but of humanity in the face of challenge.
SD: We have many works that fit this theme. Like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which goes from tragedy and fate to light and optimism. Or Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which was supposed to be an official reply to Soviet criticism, but which hides messages of defiance. And Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—a journey of resilience, inspired by the French Revolution.
EF: There is Karim Al-Zand’s Luctus Profugis, reflecting on the tenacity and courage of refugees escaping to Europe. And Carl Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” symphony, capturing the primal will to live.
SD: And Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, which is about surviving against all odds. The Sultan put each of his wives to death after their first nuptial night. But Princess Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining him with fascinating tales. A horrid story, but also a beautiful tale about resourcefulness, and what art—and telling stories—can do to save your life. Voilà.
We also offer music for the adventurer, inviting a sense of discovery, an opportunity to share in the new or unfamiliar. I spend a lot of time listening to new music. Erik, you and I have listening sessions together, trying to discover new things. What I look for is lyrical emotion. I love tunes, I love warm music that takes me on an emotional journey.
EF: Another theme of the season is St. Louis, our community. The full orchestra will perform at new venues around the greater St. Louis area, including an SLSO Crafted concert at the Touhill and extra performances of our Mercy Holiday Celebration at Lindenwood University
SD: I really feel that orchestras must connect with their community. They can’t be just in their ivory towers, performing the “masterworks.” I love to meet with artists and companies in St. Louis to find ways to collaborate—to discover what is here and how we can build on the city’s artistic fabric.
EF: For instance, on the opening concert of the season we have a new collaboration with Kirven Douthit-Boyd, a talented choreographer, dancer, and Co-Artistic Director of Dance at COCA.
SD: For that, we will have dancers on stage, accompanied by Anna Clyne’s cello concerto, DANCE. She is a wonderful composer, and it is a beautiful, moving piece.
EF: Throughout the season, several SLSO musicians will perform as soloists. We’ll hear David Halen in William Bolcom’s Violin Concerto, Elizabeth Chung in Jake Heggie’s The Work at Hand, Yin Xiong in a C.P.E. Bach cello concerto, and Allegra Lilly in Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto.
Above, some of the several SLSO musicians to solo this season. From left, David Halen, Elizabeth Chung, Yin Xiong, and Allegra Lilly.
Below, some composers Stéphane looks forward to performing again and again. From left, Anna Clyne, Jessie Montgomery, James Lee III, and Anna Clyne.
SD: It's very important to focus on composers we love, and then to have them return. To have Anna Clyne, Jessie Montgomery, James Lee III, and Nathalie Joachim come again and again. That way, we help make their music part of the repertoire.
EF: We’ll also welcome Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider for a two-week period that will give us a perspective—a snapshot—of an exceptional artist, showcasing everything they can do.
SD: With an artist, I need to feel something special. On top of the highest musical quality, there must be an element of generosity—somebody who cares for our community, who cares for the world. I believe that Nikolaj is one of the greatest artists living today. I love him and am so glad we can have him as a violinist, a chamber musician, and a conductor.
EF: And Nikolaj joins us for an SLSO first. Last fall we had a chamber music festival—there was such a positive reaction, from musicians and audience members that we said, why not do this with one of our guest artists? So this season we offer a chamber music concert on our subscription series.
The jigsaw puzzle
SD: I love collaborating with you, Erik. We have many, many hours of discussions to put one piece together with another, to listen and think. It’s a long and difficult process, but very exciting, when we find the right fit.
EF: Thank you, Stéphane.
SD: We take programming very seriously. Let’s imagine you have an immense library with every book in every language. Creating a season means that we decide, say, one hundred books from a million to read. What a responsibility!
EF: We make a lot of lists.
SD: It’s a big jigsaw puzzle. I want to understand who the audience is, what they love. You and I take our lists, then try to see how everything makes sense. So we can find the pieces that we all love together.
EF: Someone asked me recently, “Is your programming team a triangle: [President and CEO] Marie-Hélène [Bernard], Stéphane, and you?” I replied that it’s really a much bigger shape. It includes a lot of different people, with input from our orchestra and our audience.
SD: And I am so proud of this whole family. Proud of how we offered music in so many different forms: concerts, recordings, a livestream, SLSO On The Go, slsostories.org, educational projects, the list goes on. I’m proud of how we maintained our connection with our community. It is really thanks to the community that the SLSO thrived.
EF: Yes. And we are so excited to gather that community together again, safely and comfortably, and excited to present a full-sized orchestra at Powell Hall.
SD: An orchestra is really a model of society. It should demonstrate the best we can be. It should show that although we might be different, we can create beauty when we are together.
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.