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SLSO Untold: Sergei Prokofiev Played and Conducted His Own Music with the SLSO in 1937

By Eric Dundon


When Stéphane Denève, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director, leads the orchestra in Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges Suite on March 16, 2023, it will be only the sixth time the piece will have been programmed on an SLSO classical concert since 1928. The one-night-only performance of the suite at Powell Hall will be followed by five performances while the orchestra goes on tour in Europe, playing the masterwork in five cultural capitals over ten days: Vienna, Brussels, Eindhoven, Amsterdam, and Madrid.


Sergei Prokofiev, the Russian composer, first came to the United States in the later 1910s. Here, he achieved fame for his prodigious skills at the piano.

Despite a relatively few number of performances of the suite by the SLSO, the piece has an impressive history in St. Louis. Following its first SLSO performances conducted by Emil Oberhoffer in 1928, the composer himself led the work in January 1937 at the Kiel Auditorium, known today as the Stifel Theatre.

Get your tickets to the SLSO's bon voyage concert here.

In the ‘30s, Prokofiev had found the success and fame he had hoped for when he first came to the United States in 1919. Fighting against the pre-conceived notion that his modernist Russian take on classical music wouldn’t appeal to audiences globally, he achieved wild popularity through his talent at the keyboard—his piano concertos remain some of the most popular piano works of all time.


It was around the time of his rising status in America that he scored The Love for Three Oranges, a fantastical story of a cursed prince who must find three oversized oranges housing princesses—a humorous tale based on source material from an 18th-century Italian comedy.


The opera received its premiere in Chicago in 1921. Prokofiev arranged six movements into the Suite in 1924.


When Prokofiev performed the work in St. Louis, he did so after performing his fiendishly difficult Third Piano Concerto. He left the keyboard to direct The Love for Three Oranges Suite from the podium.


The St. Louis Post-Dispatch marveled at the variety in the programming (other works on the program included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and an arrangement of music from the 18th century by George Philipp Telemann). The unsigned reviewer noted the performance of The Love for Three Oranges had “enough variety, charm and fire to bring the afternoon to a rousing good close.”


A program book lists Sergei Prokofiev (spelled Prokofieff) as the pianist and conductor at SLSO concerts in January 1937.

Then, in March 1959, SLSO Music Director Edouard van Remoortel programmed the work for a U.S. tour with the orchestra. The tour made stops in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It wasn’t until 2007 that the piece was programmed on another classical concert, this time by Stéphane Denève, then a guest conductor of the orchestra.


The 2023 tour program, in addition to the Prokofiev, includes Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto with pianist Víkingur Ólafsson.


St. Louis can bid bon voyage to the SLSO on Thursday, March 16, at Powell Hall. Tickets start at $15.

 

Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Director.


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