Musicians call them "the warhorses": huge, magnificent creatures that thunder through a symphony hall and gallop straight into an audience's heart. Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. Verdi's Requiem. They've been stabled for a while, as the SLSO forged its international reputation for innovative programming, emphasizing new music and living composers. Now it's safe to bring them back, parade them one at a time and let people marvel: at the classics' timeless perfection, and at the musicality they demand.
Ask the orchestra members what they're looking forward to this season, and it's the warhorses they mention first.
"It's fantastic programming," exults Carolyn (Cally) Banham, who plays oboe and English horn with the orchestra. "People in St. Louis really want to hear this stuff again." Her biggest challenge will be Ein Heldenleben (March 21-22): "Near the end is one of the most difficult English horn solos in the entire repertoire: it comes in at rehearsal 99 of 120! It takes a lot of control, and of course I have to have really good reach so I can project through thick orchestration." She'll do no teaching that day, take her ritual nap at 4 p.m., and head upstairs to quiet her brain instead of gossiping in the musicians' lounge at intermission.
"Another tough concert for me will be The Damnation of Faust [April 17-18], but that also falls into the category of pieces I most love to play. My favorite writing for my instrument is in this piece, in a song called 'Marguerite's Romance.' It's tender and a little sad. My instrument often plays when someone dies or something dark is happening, especially in opera: but it's also used to express something truly loving, romantic, and pure of heart. I have to find that part of me that is not even the slightest bit jaded!"
For Sarah Hogan, double bass, this will be the first time playing Ein Heldenleben with a full orchestra, yet she's studied the excerpts for years and played them for every audition. "Strauss wrote really intricate and complicated parts for everyone," she says, adding that he set them a double challenge: nailing the rhythm and gliding through the changes in mood. "It can be very loud and majestic and two minutes later very calm, serene, and ethereal. You're switching on a dime."
The other incredible bass part she's anticipating is the recitative from the last movement of the Ode to Joy (May 8-10). "It's a very exposed part: We are playing with just the cellos, so it's important everyone play it really well. But all of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 is a deeply moving experience. It's very timely now: although there always seems to be a reason it feels timely, because the poetry talks about unifying people and bringing them together. It'll be a great season closer."
Violinist Jooyeon Kong adores Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony (March 13-15): "It's just really beautiful and simple and unexpected. The harmony, the colors, everything works together to draw the picture." She's expecting to work long hours at home learning every note of Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (January 23-24): "I've never played it, and whenever I hear it performed it sounds very hard!" For her, the treat will be the Elgar Cello Concerto (February 6-8) because she wants to hear how her fellow orchestra member, cellist Daniel Lee, interprets the piece. "He really is one of the topnotch players in the world," she says, "and I have no idea what his rendition is going to be like. I know the piece pretty well: but he's so imaginative, I'm excited to listen."
William James, the SLSO's new Principal Percussion, wants to listen too, to Verdi's Requiem (February 13-14): "There's not a lot of percussion, but it's one of his best works." James will have plenty of percussion in Ravel's Bol_ro (March 6-8), plus a chance to play Brahms's Symphony No. 4 (January 16-17) for the first time. In the season finale, he'll stretch furthest when he plays the involved, borderline- soloist part for the almglocken (tuned cowbells) in Thomas Ads's Asyla (May 8-10). "I'll be starting to look at that right after January 1," he vows.
Trumpet player Michael Walk is "living for the 'Dies Irae' in Verdi's Requiem, for which he'll be playing the third of the eight trumpets. He's bracing himself for the Four Sea Interludes for their "taxing and difficult third trumpet part," and can't wait for the Szymanowski Symphony No. 4, with pianist Emanuel Ax (January 30-31): "[Szymanowski's] got plenty of trumpet in there." Walk grins, admitting he can be pretty "trumpetcentric.... That's why I love Mahler as much as I do: You can rely on there being a good trumpet part. As beautiful as Brahms's melodies are, there's just not that much for us to do!"
Still, he's musician enough to be looking forward to the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (January 23-24) just because it is "beautiful and lush and full of forebodings of death"; to The Damnation of Faust because "it's got all of Berlioz's tricks in it"; and to the "Pastoral" Symphony because the music's so gripping that even acting simply as harmonic and rhythmic support, a trumpet player's drawn into the center. "Oh, and particularly fun is Ein Heldenleben," Walk adds, noting that it's arguably Strauss's best tone poem. "It's exciting music, a real thrill. Much more substantial than Don Juan, longer and more well developed, even if it is a bit egomaniacal. Salome was groundbreaking, but most of Strauss's early works are meringue."
In contrast to meringue, the 2009 half of the SLSO's season is about substance.
Jeannette Cooperman is staff writer for St. Louis magazine.