Honk If You Love Vonk

The maestro's tumultuous tenure with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra comes to a close

We enjoy the heavenly pleasures,/so we avoid all earthly things," read the lyrics -- poorly translated -- to the song that concludes Mahler's Fourth Symphony. Words appropriate to Hans Vonk, for whom, says first violinist Amy Oshiro, being a great musician "is his sole purpose."

Even for his last concert as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with the Powell Hall audience delivering waves of applause, Vonk tried to refuse the microphone for any last words. The conductor, resigning his position because of ill health, told the standing audience that all he'd had to say in his six years with the SLSO was in the music.

The gentle strumming of the harp, which concludes Mahler's vast work, would have been the appropriate accompaniment to Vonk's exit: a quiet remove after much tumult and apprehension.

Violist Morris Jacob refers to Vonk's "incredible clarity. It's almost as if he had coffee with these composers. That's what made him so special as a conductor."
Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Violist Morris Jacob refers to Vonk's "incredible clarity. It's almost as if he had coffee with these composers. That's what made him so special as a conductor."

Concertmaster David Halen describes succinctly Vonk's passion, which also, ironically, became Vonk's limitation: "Hans wants to conduct concerts. Hans wants to make music."

Those desires would have been enough if Vonk had been chosen to lead the Concertgebouw in his native Holland, for example, but in America, more is expected, and needed, for the success of an orchestra.

Vonk is a nineteenth-century man of Old World traditions and tastes. He isn't one to chat up an audience, as is the American tradition. In the United States conductors are communicators, teachers, showmen, such as Leonard Slatkin and Michael Tilson Thomas are, as Leonard Bernstein was.

"He had a view of what the maestro should be," says piccolo and flute player Jan Gippo. "At the Concertgebouw, he would never speak to the audience. But the Concertgebouw is full, and the government subsidizes salaries. Here, you don't have guys fixing the pipes in the street and whistling Vivaldi."

Vonk suffered, unfairly, from comparisons with the crowd-pleasing Slatkin. During Slatkin's 25-year tenure, SLSO came to international prominence, and the conductor was seen as an integral member of the community, announcing Cardinal scores from the podium when the team went to the World Series in the 1980s.

"People grew up with Leonard Slatkin," says Oshiro, who came to the orchestra while Vonk was music director. She gets less misty-eyed about Slatkin than some of her colleagues. "Then here's this tall, stern conductor who says, 'What's baseball?'

"He's not like the young up-and-coming 'dancers,' wiggling their hips on the podium. He comes from the Old World tradition. He sees a lot more than the flashy stuff. He goes much deeper into a piece. He's much more grounded in his interpretation of a piece.

"He worked us in very specific ways. I recall very vividly how he picked on little details, hearing things Leonard didn't want to hear. He had a discipline. He's very demanding, and he was what the orchestra wanted, or needed."

Gippo recalls that when Vonk was hired, management was looking for a conductor to take the orchestra back to the core repertoire of classical music. Vonk achieved that -- to the orchestra's benefit, Gippo believes. "The sound of the orchestra became very balanced, very cohesive. I believe we will play that way for a while. He had an impeccable sense of the pacing of that kind of music."

Violist Morris Jacob refers to Vonk's "incredible clarity. It's almost as if he had coffee with these composers. That's what made him so special as a conductor."

Vonk, for example, sought out the clarity in Mahler, says Halen, rather than the sublime. Mahler often falls victim to unrestrained musicianship that transforms his symphonies into shapeless -- albeit grandiose -- spectacles.

Yet Mahler provides perhaps more specific notations in his scores than any other Romantic composer. Vonk is attentive to these and demands that his orchestra pay attention as well. "If you follow [Mahler's instructions] to the letter," says Halen, "the work comes to life. Hans, then, polices the score, insists these directives happen, which isn't easy. Mahler is brilliant at shaping a work, and that so often doesn't get heard."

Yet as SLSO achieved greater musical refinement with Vonk, the symphony moved perilously close to bankruptcy. Last fall, the possibility that the Mahler Four would be the SLSO's final concert was a real one.

SLSO's financial crisis turned Vonk's absolute focus on the music into a liability. Vonk failed miserably in the PR department. "Hans once told me that his two biggest fears were death and speaking in public," says Jacob.

With Vonk, SLSO had a conductor who couldn't talk or refused to talk. Many times you'll hear Vonk referred to as a "stubborn Dutchman," even by those most fond of him.

The nineteenth-century man was not open to innovative programming as a means of attracting new audiences. Although Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page was enlisted as artistic advisor to the maestro, few of Page's recommendations made it onto the schedule. One member of the orchestra describes Page's situation as "a joke. Every program Hans took [that Page had suggested] was great, but everything else, Hans just nixed him. They should have told Hans to do everything Tim said."

Rather, Vonk insisted on more Beethoven, Bach and Brahms and was peeved at how Americans didn't appreciate his beloved Bruckner.

"His understanding of Bruckner and Mahler was phenomenal," says Gippo. "Our performance of Bruckner's Eighth is one of the best recordings there is. But Hans did not have the flair to draw the community together and raise the big bucks. We know this is what we need. In all aspects, it was a tragedy."

Vonk had the opportunity to evolve, to adapt, to expand his repertoire and enlarge his reputation in America. As a musician, he had the skills to explore the New World, but he remained where he was comfortable.

Last fall, the SLSO presented "Night of the Stars," a gala performance with artists from around the world coming to Powell Hall to make music for free. Frederica von Stade, Gil Shaham, Evelyn Glennie and others came to raise public awareness of how great SLSO is and how great a loss it would be if it could not be saved from disaster. Slatkin worked tirelessly to make that concert happen, sending hundreds of e-mails around the world.

In the midst of crisis, however, Vonk did not participate in the planning of the event. Says one musician, "Hans doesn't e-mail."

"The next music director has to reach the community in a musically visceral way," says Halen, "and in a personal way. He or she has to motivate the institution and give a vision of that institution to the people of St. Louis. A political component must be exercised in the next director without sacrificing expertise on the podium. However, the most dangerous thing for the orchestra is a second-class musician and a complete politician."

"What we need now is a combination of everything we had before," says Gippo, "someone who can talk and speak to young people, get them excited and interested -- a regular kind of guy yet at the same time an impeccable musician. New young conductors understand the landscape has changed. You do not take your cape off and conduct."

Gippo sees the search for Vonk's successor as more than finding a versatile, consumer-friendly leader. The next SLSO music director must be open to the New World: "We need to find our own culture. We need to find our own symphony culture, not the European.

"We're trying to find our own. We're going to find our own."

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