Unfinished Symphony

The arrival of a brilliant conductor was drowned out by labor discord. Now the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra begins a new season -- with some strings attached.

"The kind of music-making that happens in St. Louis is one that is absolutely remarkable on a human scale," marvels incoming music director David Robertson, reached by phone in Aspen, Colorado. "There is an understanding of what human beings bring to the musical equation that you don't find in a lot of other orchestras -- and I mean worldwide. There's an openness toward the emotional content that is very special in St. Louis. Music is a communication between human beings, and that's something St. Louis does at a world-class level."

The St. Louisans' signature sound can be traced to the tip of one man's baton: Leonard Slatkin.

Brash, charismatic and undeniably American, Slatkin imprinted on the orchestra a distinctly contemporary contour. Almost from his arrival in 1979, Slatkin's high-profile public persona and impassioned conducting style endeared him to audiences locally and abroad. Under his direction the symphony recorded reams of critically acclaimed CDs, garnering six Grammy Awards.

Principal trumpet player Susan Slaughter used to tell young players that if they hung in there, labor conditions at the SLSO would improve. Those days have passed.
Principal trumpet player Susan Slaughter used to tell young players that if they hung in there, labor conditions at the SLSO would improve. Those days have passed.
Piccoloist Jan Gippo: "There is a poison in the air."
Piccoloist Jan Gippo: "There is a poison in the air."

With frequent tours to New York, Europe and Asia, Slatkin kept the orchestra in the international spotlight and within artistic striking distance of the Big Five. "We used to get heralded," recalls piccolo player Gippo. "When we played [George Gershwin's] 'American in Paris' in Berlin? Nothing like it. They went nuts. They started cheering. Before we even ended, they were on their feet. We thought we were going to be mobbed -- I mean, whistling, clapping, dancing in the aisles and waving things -- it was unbelievable. We gave three or four encores. That's what it was like."

Though he remains the symphony's conductor laureate, Slatkin left St. Louis in 1996 to helm the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. As his replacement, the SLSO chose his polar opposite: Hans Vonk.

Aloof, grave and steeped in the Continental culture of state-funded orchestras, Vonk had little of his predecessor's glad-handing flair. A consummate musician, Vonk was extremely detailed in his musical interpretation. Whereas Slatkin was freewheeling and contemporary, the methodical Vonk emphasized a more classic, European repertoire. Though Vonk lacked Slatkin's easy social grace, he was no less of a conductor. Under his steady hand, the SLSO tightened as a symphonic entity. But the tours and recordings grew less frequent, and international excitement waned as the Dutch-born Vonk traded in Slatkin's bold forays for Brahms, Beethoven and Mahler.

What no knew at the time was that a debilitating disease was eating away at the maestro's neurological system. Vonk suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Though none of the musicians interviewed for this article knows precisely when Vonk became aware of his illness, they theorize the conductor began to suffer its effects soon after his arrival.

"He was so refreshing at the beginning. He did it with integrity and heart," says Christian Woehr. "I remember a specific moment when he was trying to turn a page and couldn't -- his hand was actually frozen," recalls the violist. "The orchestra started to fall apart, and then we got it together to finish the piece on our own. He saw that and cut us off. It was a modern piece and a lot of people probably didn't know, but he had been left behind. We knew at that point that it was serious."

On April 17, 2002, Vonk volunteered to step down at season's end, effectively orphaning the orchestra. (Vonk died one year ago at his home in Amsterdam at age 62.) Though he'd been with the orchestra for six seasons, he'd been ill for much of that time.

"We haven't had anybody at the helm since Vonk got really sick," says Jan Gippo. "[But] for seventeen years Leonard [Slatkin] formed this orchestra, and that nucleus is still here. We could be resurrected within six months."

While Slatkin propelled St. Louis to international acclaim, financially the house was in shambles. Touring and recording brought prestige, but rarely profit. Likewise, visiting luminaries like pianist Andre Watts and violinist Joshua Bell came at a cost that in some years exceeded $2 million.

"This is an organization that from 1980 forward did not balance its budget. It was always losing money," says executive director Randy Adams. "First it was a couple hundred thousand, and then it got bigger and bigger, until the year 2000 when we were losing over $7 million on a $28 million budget. That's a ton of change. This was from decades of overspending. If you ask me, it was artistic excellence being sought at any cost."

To cover expenses, Adams' predecessors had engaged in what can only be called dubious accounting practices. The symphony's endowment was designed to provide a steady trickle of funding, in the form of a 5 percent return on the principal. Instead, entire donations to the endowment were being counted as annual income. Gift annuities -- a setup in which a donor receives a small, steady return on a lump sum until his death, whereupon the donation is transferred to the symphony -- were spent immediately, saddling the SLSO with years' worth of interest payments on principal squandered long ago.

"The scope of the losses in St. Louis were not just another orchestra with some financial problems," says Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a research, educational and advocacy organization with more than 1,000 member orchestras. "They were much, much, much more serious than that. They went back decades."

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