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Program Notes: Bienvenue Stéphane

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Saturday, September 21, 2019 at 8:00PM

Sunday, September 22, 2019 at 3:00PM

Stéphane Denève, conductor

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

KEVIN PUTS Virelai (after Guillaume de Machaut) (World Premiere)

JENNIFER HIGDON blue cathedral



RAVEL Piano Concerto in G Major

GERSHWIN An American in Paris


Stéphane Denève on this week’s program

We start this season with a wedding. A wedding mixes two families: we have a beautiful American family and I’m your new French family. For a wedding you need something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

I have bad news. You, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, are something old! Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Ravel’s Piano Concerto are borrowed things. Gershwin borrowed car horns from Paris and Ravel borrowed jazz for the Piano Concerto.

There is new in a world premiere by St. Louis composer Kevin Puts. We will also perform Jennifer Higdon’s very moving blue cathedral for the first time, and a piece from and a piece from Guillaume Connesson, a composer whom I really love, who is very close to me.

Debussy’s La Mer (“The Sea”) is the blue. I first heardI when I was quite young. It’s one of the very first pieces I conducted as a student and I remember feeling completely at ease with the idiom. I recognized that this music was my vernacular, this music was my language. I knew La Mer would be a constant through my whole life. I have conducted it many times, but I will never be finished with it.


Virelai (after Guillaume de Machaut) (World Premiere)


Born: January 3, 1972, St. Louis, MO

Born in St. Louis, Kevin Puts is one of America’s most-performed living composers. His first opera, Silent Night, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music, and a suite from that opera will be performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra later this season.

Puts’ music is emotionally direct. “I want audiences to be held in the moment, and be taken to the next moment. If that’s not happening, I feel like I’m falling short.”

Knowing that the theme of this season-opener would be French-American connections, Puts turned to a melody that he first heard as a student, “Dame, a vous sans retollir” by fourteenth-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut.

Machaut was the most famous poet and musician of his time. “Dame” is a virelai: a form of poetry that was just coming into fashion. The poem begins, “Lady,I give you my whole heart, thought, and desire. Your worth surpasses goodness, your beauty dries up all others, and your glance cures every ill.”

To create the thrumming texture of Virelai, Puts fleshed out Machaut’s melody with harmony and rhythm. “Machaut would not have imagined accompanying chords or harmonies,” he says, “because harmony as we know it did not exist yet!”

Puts also turned to Ravel’s Bolero for inspiration. Like Ravel, Puts’ music grows in volume and intensity very gradually. “However, I decided to break into this incremental growth,” splintering the melody in a slower central section.

First Performance: September 21, 2019, Stéphane Denève conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, claves, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba, suspended cymbal, tam tam, triangle, wood block, xylophone), harp, piano, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 4 minutes


blue cathedral


Born: December 31, 1962, Brooklyn, NY

A late start

The soundtrack of Jennifer Higdon’s childhood in East Tennessee was rock ’n’ roll and bluegrass. She didn’t come to classical music until age fifteen, and Higdon believes that this unfamiliarity has helped her write works that communicate to the broadest possible audience.

Higdon’s music is performed by orchestras across the country, and her Violin Concerto was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. blue cathedral is one of the most performed works in the contemporary orchestral repertoire, gathering more than six hundred performances since its premiere in 2000.


Blue: like the middle name of her brother, like sadness, “like the sky, where all possibilities soar.” Cathedral: “a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression.”

Higdon wrote blue cathedral at a difficult time. Her younger brother, Andrew Blue, had died and Higdon found herself reflecting on the journeys that make up a life.

“The listener enters from the back of the cathedral,” writes Higdon, “floating along the corridor among giant crystal pillars, moving in a contemplative stance.” The music moves from a place of peace and calm to an “ecstatic expansion of the soul. The listener rises towards an immense ceiling which opens to the sky.”

Higdon embeds a personal connection. At the opening, solos for the clarinet (“the instrument my brother played”) and the flute (“the instrument I play”) are intertwined. After a shattering climax, the two instruments continue their dialogue.

But Higdon’s instrument, the flute, drops out, leaving the clarinet to continue, rising higher and higher, alone.

First Performance: May 1, 2000, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Robert Spano conducting the Curtis Symphony Orchestra

First SLSO Performance: September 21, 2019, Stéphane Denève conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 1 oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 8 tuned crystal glasses, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bell tree, chimes, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, tam tam, tom tom, 2 triangles, vibraphone), harp, piano (also prepared), celesta, strings, and 50 Chinese health bells

Performance Time: approximately 12 minutes


La Mer


Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

Died: March 25, 1918, Paris, France

Musical escape

In 1904, Debussy was in pain. After leaving his unhappy marriage, his wife threatened suicide and eventually shot herself, non-fatally. Debussy was cast adrift, deserted by friends, a shell of his former self.

“I’ve never been able to live in a world of real things and real people,” wrote Claude Debussy. “I have this insurmountable need to escape from myself in adventures which seem inexplicable because they reveal a man that no one knows”.

Debussy, as he so often did, escaped into music. In particular, he escaped into a musical ocean. For a man who had once considered life as a sailor, the open sea retained its power, both beautiful and terrifying.

What’s in a title?

La Mer (“The Sea”) is subtitled I (“three symphonic sketches”). Debussy chose these words carefully. Fearing the word “symphony” aligned him with a reviled conservative culture, he added the word “sketches.” Sketches: musical drawings. Sketches: forms that are outlined, preliminary.

“I feel more and more that music,” wrote Debussy, “is not something that can flow inside a rigorous, traditional form.” The sounds of La Mer flow like ocean waters: sometimes still, sometimes storm-tossed, sometimes forming recognizable shapes, sometimes slipping from our grasp.

La Mer’s new musical world confounded many listeners. Debussy dismissed the criticisms of those who “love and defend traditions which, for me, no longer exist. [Such traditions] were not all as fine and valuable as people make out. [T]he dust of the past is not always respectable.”

The music

Debussy is a sonic magician. With pen and paper he conjures whole worlds that might be gone in an instant. A trumpet and an English horn produce new colors through alchemy. Cellos (divided into four groups), soar through the air, leaving French horn contrails. Clarinet and flute play hide-and-seek amid plucked violas.

Each movement takes a journey that is unpredictable, yet feels organic:

1. De l’aube à midi sur la mer (“From dawn to noon on the sea”): The first movement glows and flutters, ending with an overwhelming surge.

2. Jeux de vagues (“Play of the waves”): In the second, slippery melodies dart and weave around the orchestra.

3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (“Dialogue of the wind and the sea”): The third movement is wild, violent, barely able to contain its radiant, hymn-like conclusion.

The final word

“My dear Jacques,” wrote Debussy to his publisher. “The sea was in D-flat, in 6/8 time. So, a pleasant crossing.” His life might have been spiraling, his spirit broken, but Debussy still kept a tiny twinkle in his eye.

First Performance: October 15, 1905, Paris, France, Camille Chevillard conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux

First SLSO Performance: January 23, 1914, Max Zach conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: September 17, 2016, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, glockenspiel, triangle), 2 harps, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 23 minutes


The Shining One


Born: May 5, 1970, Boulogne-Billancourt, France

The chance meeting

The Shining One began with two meetings: the first with a pianist, the second with a book.

In 2005, French composer Guillaume Connesson came to greet pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet backstage in Washington, D.C. Thibaudet was there to perform Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and asked Connesson whether he would write a “sequel” to Ravel’s concerto.

Connesson, one of France’s most prolific and popular composers, had written relatively little for piano. He was intrigued.

The book

“I always begin with a book,” says Connesson. Books give rise to images, which form a “sensation of colors.” He is particularly drawn to fantasy fiction, “the mystery of lost worlds, of sunken cities.”

Seeking inspiration for the new concerto, he turned to Abraham Merritt’s novel, The Moon Pool. Merritt is a sort of twentieth-century Jules Verne. In The Moon Pool, a group of scientists search for a mysterious creature known as “The Shining One.” The creature lives in the earth’s core, rising only to kill humans and gain their power.

The Shining One

Connesson’s The Shining One focuses its gaze on the creature. The first section paints the creature’s “luminous aura.” “The orchestra and piano are shimmering and light,” writes the composer. In the second section, the orchestra become the “voices of the sacrificial victims, who whisper to the living.”

The third section captures the bliss experienced by victims before their death. Connesson mixes horror with ecstasy in music that swirls dizzyingly, dangerously.

Extracts from The Moon Pool

[The creature is observed:]

I sensed, rather than saw, something coming. It drew first into sight as a deeper glow within the light. On and on it swept toward us—an opalescent mistiness that sped with the suggestion of some winged creature in arrowed flight. Closer it drew and now there came to me sweet, insistent tinklings—like pizzicati on violins of glass; crystal clear; diamonds melting into sounds!

[A character is killed by the creature:]

[Stanton’s] face shone with a rapture too great to be borne by living man, and was shadowed with insuperable misery. It was as though it had been remolded by the hand of God and the hand of Satan, working together and in harmony. You have seen that seal upon my own. But you have never seen it in the degree that Stanton bore it. The eyes were wide open and fixed, as though upon some inward vision of hell and heaven!

First Performance: March 28, 2009, Glasgow, Scotland, Stéphane Denève conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist

First SLSO Performance: September 21, 2019, Stéphane Denève conducting with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist

Scoring: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (bass drum, claves, glockenspiel, marimba, mark tree, triangle, vibraphone, suspended cymbal, metal, tam tam), harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 10 minutes


Piano Concerto in G


Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, France

Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France


Maurice Ravel was honest about his musical influences. “One should not expect a composer’s works to be entirely personal creations,” he wrote.

Ravel was drawn to the sounds of the exotic, the unfamiliar, the other. His music is colored by hints from his ancestors’ Basque region, from the Middle East, from America. In an article titled “Take jazz seriously,” Ravel wrote, “What is being written today without the influence of jazz?”


Ravel’s intentions were clear. “My only wish was to write a genuine concerto,” he wrote of the Piano Concerto in G. The warring sides of a traditional concerto-battle would be ignored. Instead, he wanted “a brilliant work, clearly highlighting the soloist’s virtuosity, without seeking to show profundity.”

Ravel prized craftsmanship, producing scores that are clean, perfect jewels. This perfectionism often slowed him. “I worked for three years [to write the concerto],” he wrote, “during which time I hardly got six hours of sleep each night.”

The music

Ravel’s concerto zooms and zips and seduces. It weds the tangy melodies and guitars of the Basque region to the syncopations and expressive solos of jazz. Every moment is eventful; not a second is wasted.

I. Allegramente (“cheerfully”): A whip crack starts the concerto’s whirring machinery. “In my childhood I had a great interest in mechanical things,” wrote Ravel. “These machines, their clanking and roaring, and the Spanish folk songs sung by my mother, formed my first musical education.”

II. Adagio assai (“very slowly”): Floating on a gentle breeze, the long melody that opens the second movement seems to live, as Ravel once wrote, “like an awakened dreamer.” Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, “the most beautiful piece he wrote,” lies in the background. But effortless beauty cost Ravel effort: “That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!”

III. Presto (“fast”): Above piano bustle, wild soloists call out to each other. The message is clear: we are here to party. Ravel, according to a friend, was a “mixture of medieval Catholicism and satanic impiety.” Another friend describes a carefree Ravel dancing in drag, then, “through a deafening din of jazz, [launching] on a discussion about the nature of art until four in the morning.”

The final word

“What is my opinion of this concerto?”, wrote Ravel. “[It’s] a rather good one. I think that I found what I was looking for. Or rather, not entirely. Let’s not exaggerate: you never realize exactly what you are looking for. If some day I think that I have succeeded, I’ll be finished.”

First Performance: January 14, 1932, Paris, France, Maurice Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux with Marguerite Long as soloist

First SLSO Performance: February 17, 1945, Leonard Bernstein as conductor and soloist

Most Recent SLSO Performance: November 12, 2017, John Storgårds conducting with Marc-André Hamelin as soloist

Scoring: solo piano, flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam tam, triangle, whip, wood block), harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 23 minutes


An American in Paris


Born: September 26, 1898, Brooklyn, NY

Died: July 11, 1937, Los Angeles, CA

The inspiration

In the photo below, five people gather around a piano. All but one looks at the camera. The odd man out is George Gershwin, whose eyes are fixed instead on the hands of the pianist. At the piano is Maurice Ravel.

By 1926, Gershwin was famous and wealthy. He had come far, from humble roots, yet strived for establishment acceptance. He traveled to Paris for lessons with Ravel but was immediately rejected. “Why become a second-rate Ravel,” wrote Ravel, “when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”

Gershwin stayed in Paris for just one week. But while there he scrawled a melody on a postcard, noting that the melody was “very Parisienne.” A humble tune. The musical kernel of An American in Paris.

Two years later, Gershwin walked beside his beloved Hudson River. Thinking of his nostalgic feelings for the Hudson, he imagined a scene: “[A]n American in Paris, homesickness, the blues…a walk on the Champs Elysées, of the honking taxi.” The poetic kernel of An American in Paris.

The maverick

At the time, Gershwin was studying music theory with Henry Cowell. Cowell was a maverick composer, throwing fists at piano keys, strumming piano strings with hands. Gershwin brought some of this experimental edge to An American in Paris, layering melody on melody, compiling the organized chaos of the city.

To capture “the traffic sound of the Place de la Concorde during the rush hour,” Gershwin turned to the sound of car horns. For days he shopped for the right Parisian horns, storing more than twenty in his hotel room.

The story (according to Gershwin himself)

“This piece describes an American’s visit to the gay and beautiful city of Paris. We see him sauntering down the Champs-Élysées, walking stick in hand, tilted straw hat, drinking in the sights, and other things as well. We see the effect of the French wine, which makes him homesick for America. And that’s where the blue begins. I mean the blues begin. He finally emerges from his stupor to realize once again that he is in the gay city of Paree, listening to the taxi-horns, the noise of the boulevards, and the music of the can-can, and thinking, “Home is swell! But after all, this is Paris—so let’s go!’”

First Performance: December 13, 1928, New York City, New York, Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic

First SLSO Performance: February 14, 1930, George Szell conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: October 18, 2015, Steven Jarvi conducting

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 auto horns, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, 2 tom toms, triangle, wood block, xylophone), celesta, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 18 minutes


Program notes by Tim Munro, the SLSO's Creative Partner.


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