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.

"We're cutting down all the time," says violist Lynn Hague. "Maybe we'll just hire them for a few weeks a year when we're truly under strain. How much money would we have to spend to get Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner or any of the other big pieces on a regular basis? Well, we don't. We play Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart" -- composers whose work tends to require smaller orchestras. "If we're going to play something that needs [more musicians], we just hire the other players. That's no longer a symphony orchestra. That's a chamber orchestra."

Hague and other musicians fear that in addition to losing colleagues to greener pastures, Adams' corners-cutting regime will deter elite players from coming to St. Louis in the first place.

It's a claim that many in symphonic circles say may be overstated, if only because of today's economic climate. "It's not like other orchestras have a million openings a year," the American Symphony Orchestra League's Henry Fogel points out. "As with everything in this business, you balance artistic with fiscal. There's no question that having the same highly skilled players on contract is better than having to hire the best available substitute. The question is how much better. Every orchestra has to make that decision."

Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein deemed incoming maestro David Robertson "the most gifted of the new generation of American conductors."
Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein deemed incoming maestro David Robertson "the most gifted of the new generation of American conductors."

Still, some in St. Louis are unpersuaded -- and they add that they were underwhelmed by the candidates who recently auditioned to fill vacancies for a principal clarinetist and cellist.

"We were wanting and hoping for a higher caliber of auditioners," says Susan Slaughter, regarded as one of the world's best trumpet players. "I can't really say in good faith to the younger players: 'Look, just hang in there, it's going to get better.'"

Second to the conductor, an orchestra's sound is determined by the quality of its concert hall. For the SLSO that means Powell Hall.

Built as a movie palace in 1925 and acquired by the symphony in 1966, Powell is an unassuming box of a building. Inside, though, it boasts a grand foyer modeled after the royal chapel at Versailles, a confection of crystal chandeliers, cream-colored walls, gold leaf and red carpet.

But what really counts is the sound, and by that standard Powell ranks among the world's best. "It has warmth that enhances a performance," the legendary violinist Isaac Stern famously remarked after performing in St. Louis. "Powell Hall is first-rate. It ranks with Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston."

Technicians believe that years of music have only deepened the hall's resonance, in much the same way a Stradivarius improves with age. "Wood is a living material," says facilities manager Cynthia Schon, noting that the orchestra shell is a stand-alone piece, allowing it to act like a massive subwoofer. "The walls and wood allow the music to reflect, coming back from the rear and washing over the audience. I'm convinced that playing great music in a hall only makes it better."

If that's so, then the acoustics are bound to get a boost when 47-year-old David Robertson assumes his duties on September 12. Educated at London's Royal Academy of Music, Robertson is known for fiery performances, a magnetic persona and his spontaneous yet structured readings of modern scores.

"One of the reasons I came to St. Louis is the orchestra is magnificent. They are at present under-recognized in terms of the quality of music they make," says the new conductor, who recently bought a loft downtown. "But the thing that is really important is the kind of chemistry that the players and I can work out in terms of which artists we bring in, what kind of repertoire we'll be playing and how we can develop to the fullness of our potential. You have a group of extraordinary people who've lacked a sort of spokesperson. They've lacked someone who can focus everybody's energy -- so in a sense, that's what I'm really here to do."

For Randy Adams, signing Robertson to a three-year contract was a huge coup. Delivering the news in the Chicago Tribune, music critic John von Rhein praised Robertson as "the most gifted of the new generation of American conductors" and reassured Windy City readers that "the good news is that St. Louis is only an hour's flight from Chicago."

Adams says Robertson's presence is proof his strategy is working. "We're taking some risks, but we're winning despite those risks," he says. "We are getting good-quality people here. The musicians have to say [quality has declined]. That's their only card. But the facts don't back it up, and I have hard evidence: In the last five months we've had seven auditions and filled ten positions. David Robertson was in every audition, and he was impressed with the quality of the people we attracted."

But not all the musicians are buying in. They contend that a three-year contract with a rising star does not address the deeper issues of reduced salaries and a curtailed concert schedule. They're excited that the upcoming season includes four concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York, but they're quick to point out that the budget for guest artists, which reached $2.3 million back in 1997-'98, is now limited to about $650,000. Foreign tours are also out of the question until at least 2010, according to Adams.

« Previous Page
Next Page »