For the last three seasons, usually when the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians are nearing their final June performances in the Opera Theatre of St. Louis pit, I send out an e-mail query: What concerts are you most looking forward to in the upcoming season, and why?
I also send the same message to the SLSO staff, as knowledgeable a group of music lovers as can be found in one place. The idea is borrowed from those intriguing "staff picks" cards found at local bookstores. Just as a customer might get lost in a myriad of books, so might a prospective concertgoer be overwhelmed by the many concert offerings at Powell Hall. It might be of some help, or at least interesting, to hear what the musicians who actually play the music find exciting, as well as what those working behind the scenes have already marked on their calendars.
A few patterns have emerged over the last three seasons of taking inventory of the collective tastes of the SLSO. If a Mahler symphony is on the schedule: be there! Likewise Shostakovich, or something on the grand scale from composers such as Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Stravinsky, especially if David Robertson is conducting The Rite of Spring, as he did in 2008. Violinist Dana Edson Myers wrote, in anticipation of that concert: "That piece never fails to make my blood boil, no matter how many times I've played it." For two nights at Powell Hall, Robertson and company had the defibrillators on standby for The Rite.
If big works by the composers above have anything in common that appeals to musicians, it is that a Mahler or Bruckner symphony or a Strauss tone poem call on all the forces and skills of a major orchestra. An orchestra that seeks to achieve the best looks forward to compositions that demand the best of the full ensemble. For this reason, John Adams's music has joined the list of most-anticipated. It undoubtedly helps that the SLSO Music Director is one of the master interpreters of Adams's work. Carolyn Banham, who plays English horn and oboe with the orchestra, selects the April 9 _10, 2010 concerts that feature the Doctor Atomic Symphony, because "I always love to play John Adams with David Robertson. Every time you get the SLSO, David, and the music of Adams together, I almost burst with pride."
In the months ahead, what remains in the 2009 _10 season that the SLSO is most eager to play and hear? The top picks: Pines of Rome, January 22 _24, and an all-Wagner program with soprano Christine Brewer, May 1 and 2.
If there is one factor that stands out in the Pines of Rome program, it is guest conductor St_phane Denve. "Denve brings a youthful exuberance to the program," says violinist Kristin Ahlstrom. "He's a lot of fun to make music with." "The last time St_phane Denve was in town [March 2007], the orchestra seemed to thrive under his intense and fresh approach," observes double bassist Sarah Hogan. "Denve brings new electricity to these masterworks," says trombonist Jonathan Reycraft.
The tall, French native with unruly red hair remains one of the young, under-40 conductors in the international firmament whose star continues to rise, even as he serves as Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. His first performance with the SLSO, in September 2003, captured the attention of St. Louis-Post Dispatch critic Sarah Bryan Miller, "Denve is clearly a conductor to watch," was her summation.
As the brilliant young Denve is on the musicians' radar this month, spring means the return of Christine Brewer to Powell Hall. In the program "All Wagner!" she is joined by bass-baritone Alan Held, with David Robertson at the podium. Principal Double Bass of the SLSO, Erik Harris, writes: "Christine Brewer is possibly the greatest Wagnerian soprano in the world today, paired with a 'greatest hits' of four incredible Wagner operas [Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Walk‹re]. It will make a Wagner fan out of anyone."
The fact that Brewer is a soprano of international renown as well as a hometown favorite adds to her popularity among the SLSO. "This should be a highlight for sure," says horn player Tod Bowermaster. "St. Louis's own Christine Brewer (well, OK, Lebanon, Illinois's own!) is one of the premiere Wagner sopranos of our time."
A concert with Brewer is like playing with a longtime friend, which she undoubtedly is, as many of the musicians remember performing with her at Opera Theatre in the early stages of her career.
Of course the 2010 half of the SLSO's 130th season contains a diversity of pleasures for musicians and staff, and audiences. The orchestra weekend with violinist Gil Shaham, April 9 _11, in which he performs concertos by Mozart, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev, is a highlight: a dual program that travels to four California venues. As many times as these musicians have played The Planets, exploring those celestial bodies with David Robertson is highly anticipated, March 5 _6. And one of those big Shostakovich symphonies, the Eighth, with Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky, combined with the intimacy of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, with Orli Shaham at the keyboard, has all the ingredients SLSO musicians crave, March 26 _28. "I've been waiting my whole life to play Shostakovich Eight!" exclaims Carolyn Banham. "The moment is finally here!"