Stéphane Dèneve leaves his position as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor at the end of this season. Over his six-year association with the orchestra, the maestro – recently installed as music director of the St Louis Symphony – has proven valuable for his versatility, leading everything from world premieres to repertory warhorses with ease. His first appearance this fall offered a program that blended old and new, starting with the Russian-born American composer Lera Auerbach and ending at Stravinsky, with Peter Lieberson’s lovely Neruda Songs in the middle.

Stéphane Denève © Henry Fair
Stéphane Denève
© Henry Fair

The program riffed on the traditional “overture, concerto, symphony” structure. Auerbach’s Icarus for Orchestra, a 12-minute tone poem that premiered in 2011, opens with jarring pizzicatos layered over strings playing col legno. The juxtaposition prepares the listener for the composition’s sound world, which alternates steadily between beauty and terror. One moment, concertmaster David Kim played a violin glissando with startling control. A second later, guest artist Darryl Kubian mirrored Kim on his theremin, the eerie electronic instrument adding an otherworldly element to the piece. Taken together, the two instruments bridged a gap between old and new ways of orchestral thinking that was refreshing and invigorating. Unlike the woeful figure of the work’s title, Auerbach clearly knows what she’s doing.

Lieberson’s Neruda Songs is a concerto of sorts; the lush orchestral settings of these five poems is as important as the vocal writing for the mezzo-soprano soloist, and a successful performance should balance virtuosity from both forces. Dèneve supplied just that, drawing rich colors throughout and highlighting quirky bits of solo writing embedded in the overall narrative. He clearly loves this music; as he took his bow, he pressed the score close to his heart, deep reverence stamped all over his face.

Kelley O’Connor lacks the instantly recognizable timbre and the probing artistry of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer’s wife, who premiered this song cycle shortly before her death in 2006. She performed the first three songs in the set without much individual flair, and her bottom-heavy mezzo occasionally strained for resonance. It wasn’t until the fourth song, Ya eres mía. Reposa con tu sueño en mi sueño (And now you’re mine. Rest with your dream in my dream), that she fully channeled the ecstatic nature of these love poems. She proved fully committed in the shattering finale, Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueres (My love, if I die and you don’t).

The performance concluded with the complete ballet score of Stravinsky’s Firebird, a daring proposition for an audience likely to know the work, at least from an orchestral perspective, from its excerpted suites. The Philadelphians have played the full score several times, most recently in 2015, but it’s a tall order to keep the crowd invested in music that’s meant to underscore a theatrical narrative. Not so here. Dèneve and orchestra made the music dance with the vigor of any ballet company, and the listeners could barely wait to shower them with applause at the 50-minute work’s conclusion. Let’s hope Dèneve doesn’t become a stranger once his time in Philadelphia is through.