Symphony Overtures

A great orchestra at great risk, the SLSO seeks major donors to close the endowment gap between their $28 million and the $100 million of their competitors

When St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) bassoonist Felicia Foland talks about what it takes to maintain a world-class orchestra, the first thing she doesn't want to talk about is money. She is passionate about her art, passionate about this symphony she toils for and with. She's no 23-year-old (rather, she's somewhere in the late-thirtysomething stage) straight out of conservatory who landed a plum position right off the bat, she emphasizes. There were 32 auditions with orchestras around the country before she became a member of the SLSO, playing an instrument that's never going to get her an overnight recording contract. She made a living freelancing, "playing smaller orchestral venues in regional orchestras, pickup jobs, and some very good things, too. I was a substitute player in the Chicago Symphony and in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for a number of years." But, by her own assessment, she was "scraping by" without much to go on but persistence and a belief in her own talent. "The hardest time is the time between realizing where you are, and you don't want to be there, to where you are that is satisfying." Foland watched many talented friends turn to more lucrative careers: "They do other things. They have other talents. I know a terrific clarinet player who's a lawyer. I know a great bassoon player who's a writer. I know a wonderful oboe player who left the profession. There are a lot of people walking around out there who are doing things that don't have anything to do with music who are just incredible."

But Foland, with a combination of talent, luck, tenacity and foolhardiness, on audition No. 32 landed a position with, by most everyone's estimation, one of the world's premier orchestras. So it's not surprising that to someone who dedicates herself to an art form that demands the highest expertise in return for, economically, little more than a stable middle-class life, dollars and cents are not the primary issue when discussing a symphony orchestra.

"You cannot be reasonable about bringing world-class-quality classical music to people and have any logical talk about money," Foland asserts. "Yes, there are nuts and bolts, but it is essentially not a corporate way of thinking or the business status quo. It can't function that way. If it did, it would have failed a long time ago. You have to forget all that financial thinking. If it depended on what came back to the orchestra, none of it would be here."

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
photo provided by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Foland's romantic sentiments about the orchestra and music she loves are as one would wish them to be. Pragmatism is the last thing one wants to hear from a classical musician. Great art is not produced by accountants. Part of the beauty of art is how it soars above the tedium of everyday life. To walk away from a Mozart piano concerto and wonder about Evgeny Kissin's salary implies the death of beauty.

Yet the symphony orchestra, which flowered in an age of romanticism, is most endangered in this most unromantic time. Foland's passion, which can be heard voiced in other ways throughout Powell Hall -- from musicians to marketers to boards of directors -- is rare even among artists in this new millennium of technological profiteers. In a culture increasingly afflicted with attention-deficit disorder, what is the value of sitting and listening to two-and-a-half hours of exquisite music in a glittering auditorium? How to sell specialness when the going currency is familiarity? What is such an experience worth in a time when the very notion of "experience" takes on new meaning in an age of virtual reality? Does "being there" matter in the world of cyberspace, when an entire concert can be downloaded?

And how to convince citizens living in a region with so many serious problems that this extra-special commodity is worth $100 million?

"IT'S UP TO US TO MAKE THE PITCH," SAYS Dr. Virginia Weldon, chairwoman of the SLSO board of directors. And what is that pitch? "A great symphony at great risk."

There's no question that the SLSO is one of the great symphonies. "We are one of the few cities in the United States of America that has a truly great symphony orchestra. There are probably four or five cities that are as fortunate as we are," Weldon observes. Most critics name the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra as the pre-eminent classical-music maker in the country; if the SLSO is not No. 2, it makes it into most everyone's top five. Remarkably, the most acclaimed symphonies are not in the greatest metropolises but in midsize cities such as St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.

But what do those symphonies have that the SLSO doesn't? A $100 million endowment.

"The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has an endowment of $110 million. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has an endowment of $28 million. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure out that's a big problem," says Weldon.

Although Weldon talks in the terms of dollars and cents that Foland would sooner avoid, she does not lack any of the musician's passion. A former senior vice president of public policy at Monsanto, she affirms community values that are not so common among the new breed of corporate leaders: "I grew up in a family where my father always made it very clear that it was a responsibility to give back to the community in whatever way you could. I believe in that very strongly, and I always have." Weldon grew up with a love of music and studied piano (she still does), but as her mother dreamed of her daughter performing in the concert halls of the world, the more pragmatic Weldon realized she had a better chance at medicine.

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