SLSO Explores Celestial Spaces with Composers of Today

By Laine Sulz


This season, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Stéphane Denève take a musical journey to places near and far, exploring various cultures through music. This sonic pilgrimage, however, isn’t limited to places on Earth.


On November 18–20, the orchestra blasts through the atmosphere in an exploration of legend, the divine, and stars as Denève and the SLSO perform Gustav Holst’s The Planets and the world premiere of Guillaume Connesson’s Astéria. Concerts will also include the first SLSO performances of Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s Primal Message and James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula.


Composers on the program include, from left: Guillaume Connesson, James Lee III, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama.

“This is a fun program about space and the planets,” Denève said. In thinking about programming alongside Holst’s well-known suite, Denève chose music likely to be unfamiliar to most listeners. “I think these newer pieces can answer The Planets in a modern way,” he said.


A depiction of the Greek Goddess Astéria.

The concert opens with the world premiere of Guillaume Connesson’s Astéria. Connesson, a French composer, has a long history with the SLSO and deep friendship with Denève. The orchestra first performed his piece Une lueur dans l'âge somber (A Glimmer in the Age of Darkness) in the 2009/2010 season—a piece that Connesson wrote in honor of Denève. The SLSO has featured his work in five other programs, including the U.S. premiere of his saxophone concerto, A Kind of Trane, in March 2020. A tribute to the Greek Goddess of the stars, Astéria focuses on the sounds of legend.


The program then transitions into Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s work, Primal Message. Ngwenyama notes that the piece is “based on the idea of communicating the things we learn to communicate with each other: our intelligence, our emotions, our goodness.” The work was inspired by the Arecibo message, the interstellar radio message about Earth and humanity sent to globular star cluster M13 in 1974. The composer wanted to explore how a message could convey humanity's primal essence, “both intelligent and emotional.”


“This is a beautiful piece for strings and harp by the composer, and it's also very poetic piece,” Denève said, noting that the music the Arecibo message’s hope for peace.


An image of the Orion constellation, inspiration for James Lee III piece.

The concert continues with a piece by frequent SLSO collaborator, James Lee III: Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula. The work sets to evoke images of the Messiah and saints coming down from the celestial landscape of Orion’s constellation. This will be the SLSO debut performance of the piece.


The concert closes with Gustav Holst’s most-famous work, The Planets. The piece explores our own solar system, giving sonic life to each of the planets and their astrological character. Although composed more than 100 years ago, The Planets stills feels modern, utilizing an uncommon seven-movement structure, and closing the suite with a soprano/alto chorus. The final moments of the suite, composed to represent Neptune, fade into infinity, with the chorus repeating a musical phrase into the distance.


To explore the sounds of the universe, visit slso.org for tickets and more information.

 

Laine Sulz is a member of the SLSO’s Marketing/Communications team.