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St. Louis Symphony Returns To Powell Hall With Small Audiences, Big Compositions

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will be led in its "chamber orchestra" iteration by a masked Stephane Deneve.
Provided by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will be led in its "chamber orchestra" iteration by a masked Stephane Deneve.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra returns to Powell Hall tonight. Seven months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down large events across the country, the symphony is kicking off a shortened season of what it calls “chamber orchestra concerts,” with smaller audiences and fewer musicians on stage.

The concerts are limited to 100 audience members, with half the usual number of musicians on stage, strict distancing and mandatory masks.

But even though the number of people present will be smaller, the performances should be as big as ever. The symphony’s triumphant return this weekend features Beethoven’s beloved Third Symphony, better known as the Eroica. Composed in honor of Napoleon (a tribute Beethoven revoked after the one-time revolutionary declared himself emperor), the symphony was originally regarded as too long and complicated by music lovers — it’s since become accepted as a masterpiece, one that redefined “what a symphony should be and do.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Music Director Stéphane Denève explained that he chose the Eroica because “after so many months not having the luck to play together, we needed to just plunge into one of the greatest possible masterworks, and this one definitely applies.”

The symphony’s second movement is a funeral march, which Denève said was a way to pay homage to the lives lost in the pandemic. But he noted the Eroica doesn’t end there: “It’s a great symphony that still ends in incredibly witty, hopeful fashion.”

He acknowledged that having half as many instruments on stage as pre-pandemic puts more pressure on individual performers, but it also offers new opportunities.

“You always have to make the best of any situation,” he said. “This is an opportunity to find some other way of playing, to listen to each other even more, and to have a soloistic engagement in the playing.” Separated by six feet in any direction from other performers, “each musician can hear himself or herself very well, and yet has to try to create a sound mixed with the others.”

He added, “Somehow, it gives a certain kind of crispiness in the sound, and we want to make it the most interesting experience, and I can guarantee it will sound still as a symphony orchestra.”

Denève said he looked forward to a time when he could greet his colleagues again in his preferred manner (the French music director acknowledges that he is an enthusiastic kisser of cheeks). He also looks forward to no longer wearing a mask while conducting.

He noted that he is quite far from the first row of musicians. “I really hope that I will be able to remove the mask at some point, for me, because I’m far enough,” he said.

In Europe, where he is the music director of the Brussels Philharmonic, and also works with an orchestra in Germany, Denève said he does not have to wear a mask. “Luckily, over there it was fine,” he said.

For now, though, in St. Louis, “I do wear a mask, because I want to give a good example,” he said. “And here I think it’s more psychological, that the audience feels that we care for them, that we want to show that we really are very serious to be doing everything to keep everybody healthy. That said, it is a scientific fact that it is a bit unnecessary, because I am far from the first desk of violins, very far, more than six feet. And they are wearing masks themselves.”

Related Event
What: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Chamber Orchestra Concert
When: Oct. 15-18, 2020
Where: Powell Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.