Praise for Gemma New and the St. Louis Symphony

Praise for Gemma New and the St. Louis Symphony

Gemma New leads the St. Louis Symphony (Photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat)

Grace and sparkle from Gemma New and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
By Sarah Bryan Miller
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
April 5, 2019

A contemporary reworking of French Baroque compositions, a Late Romantic piece inspired by that time and place and a sparkling classical concerto form the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s program for this weekend.

Conducted by the SLSO’s gifted resident conductor, Gemma New, they’re written for relatively small ensembles. Many moods are represented, but the end result is uplifting.

“Three Studies from Couperin,” by Thomas Adès, calls for a double string orchestra, winds and percussion. Adès maintained the most basic aspects of François Couperin’s trio of compositions, but thoughtfully reorchestrated them for a distinctly contemporary sound.

The first, “Les Amusemens (Amusements),” is flowing, meandering music, pleasant with a slightly dark undertone. The second, “Les Tours de Passe-Passe (Sleight of Hand),” is a brilliant exercise in tonal surprise. The last, “L’âme en peine (The Soul in Torment),” is solemn and melancholy. New, who seated the strings on the sides, with the winds in the middle, brought out all the undercurrents and moods of the piece; the orchestra was completely in tune with her.

The soloists for the charming Concerto in C major for Flute and Harp by Mozart came from the orchestra: principal flute Mark Sparks and the aptly named principal harp, Allegra Lilly.

They’re a well-matched duo. Sparks played with his familiar golden tone; Lilly aced the egregiously difficult harp part with grace, facility and accuracy. The first movement was replete with joy. The second began with lovely delicacy; the joint cadenza was interesting, well-conceived and in sync with the rest of the concerto. The third movement was appropriately spirited.

The concerto felt like a comfortable, organic partnership between New, Sparks, Lilly and the orchestra and got a first-rate performance from all concerned.

The second half brought Baroque inspiration with a 20th-century filter. Richard Strauss and his great librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wanted to combine Molière’s play “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” with a one-act opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos.” It proved too long, but the opera lives on, and the Suite from “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” (“Der Bürger als Edelman,” in German) has some great moments.

Sparks returned to the ranks for the Suite and was among the many principal players who got to shine brightly; Strauss provided wonderful, inventive passages for every instrument and section. Both the play and opera are comedies, and that shows in the music, with Strauss at his sunniest. It’s not easy stuff, but the SLSO was more than up to it.

This is the sort of almost transparent program that doesn’t allow for any missteps. There were none, from either orchestra or conductor, as New continues to prove that she’s one of the brightest rising stars in the conducting firmament.