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.

For the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, April 16 was freighted with symbolism. Not only did the evening mark the orchestra's first trip to Carnegie Hall in nearly three years, it was also a coming-out party for the musicians and their new music director-designate, David Robertson.

By all accounts, the New York performance was a raging success. Opening with Charles Ives' "Unanswered Question," Robertson and crew coaxed numerous standing ovations from the near-capacity crowd. Chief New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini deemed the night a "love-fest" and fawned over Robertson's "sweeping and heady account" of Ives' cheeky second symphony. Not to be outdone, St. Louis Post-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller characterized the show as "close to flawless."

So enraptured was the maestro with the quality of his new orchestra that backstage after the concert he reportedly held aloft a flute of Champagne and told the musicians, "You are the stuff from which people make legends. You are going to change the face of music, mark my words."

But there was another layer of meaning to the Carnegie performance. Only six weeks earlier, the musicians had approved a new labor contract, ending one of the most contentious orchestral disputes in recent memory. The three-and-a-half-year contract nudged by with tepid support -- 55 orchestra members voted in favor, 35 against -- setting first-year base pay at $74,000, well shy of the $80,000 they'd anticipated.

Nationally, critics viewed the Carnegie concert as a public reconciliation. Privately, though, players were still reeling from the brutal negotiations.

"This is an orchestra that historically has always gotten up for those concerts that mean a lot to the institution," says Marc Gordon, widely regarded as one of the world's finest English horn players. "When we're onstage playing a concert, there's this two-hour period where nothing invades our aura. But the rest of the time, it's just not a pleasant place to be."

Flutist and piccolo player Jan Gippo is more pointed in his post-negotiation assessment: "There is a poison in the air."

Tense labor-management dealings are nothing new, not even in the pitch-perfect confines of a concert hall. But while last winter's labor negotiations were particularly acrimonious -- rife with such hardball indignities as cutting off musicians' healthcare, banning them from recording at Powell Hall and a musician vote of "no confidence" in the symphony's president and executive director, Randy Adams -- a lot more than a contract was at stake.

For years now, orchestras across the nation have been struggling to balance their budgets. CD sales are flat, and while the quality of musicianship may be higher than ever, audiences continue to dwindle. The cool national economy exerts tremendous pressure on orchestras to secure private annual donations. Locally owned companies are increasingly swallowed by out-of-town parents, imperiling corporate sponsorship. Municipal interest in arts-taxation districts is low. The combination of economic and cultural forces has prompted many orchestras to keep ticket prices high, perhaps bringing in more short-term money but further isolating them from the communities they seek to serve.

Far from immune, St. Louis is emblematic of the struggle. Plagued by decades of financial mismanagement, by the year 2000 the SLSO was on the fast track to bankruptcy. The organization managed to sidestep financial ruin at the time by cutting salaries and trimming ten weeks from its performance schedule. But it was a temporary fix, and the festering concern resurfaced during last winter's labor strife. Ostensibly a showdown over musicians' wages, the work stoppage was in fact a clash of two radically different philosophies.

At issue was the manner in which an institution that has survived for more than a century on community philanthropy can endure the vicissitudes of a modern market economy while maintaining artistic excellence. On one side of the debate stands Randy Adams, who aims to cut costs, shore up resources and increase the orchestra's endowment before taking artistic or economic risks. Across the divide stand the musicians, who argue that while austerity may improve financial health, it does so at the peril of artistic quality -- the orchestra's greatest attribute.

Adams won the first round in a walkover. But not only did the musicians agree to a contract that fell short of their monetary expectations, they also came away demoralized, with the impression that the SLSO is continuing a course of artistic decline and that as employees they are expendable.

"We had been the poster child for good relations between musicians and management," says assistant principal violist Christian Woehr. "Now it's the worst I have ever seen. I know plenty of people in the orchestra, myself included, who simply avoid [Adams]."

Ranking symphony orchestras is neither an art nor a science. It is a parlor game. Nonetheless, there is wide consensus in the world of classical music that the U.S. has historically boasted a Big Five -- the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. (Although orchestras in San Francisco and Los Angeles are making an increasingly persuasive argument that the club should be expanded to seven.)

St. Louis, meanwhile, has always been seen as the Seabiscuit of symphonies. With its fiercely loyal players -- some of the world's greatest among them -- the orchestra is known for its elegant sound, subtle blending and flexibility. On any given night, the SLSO stands shoulder to shoulder with the world's greats. On some nights, the St. Louisans will tell you, they surpass them.

"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.

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."

By 2000 the orchestra's ribs had begun to show. A $10 million "bridge fund" established in 1995 petered out ahead of schedule, prompting then-executive director Don Roth to embark on very public examination of finances. What Roth found was alarming: On top of the endowment-raiding, auditors discovered that conservative investment strategies had caused the symphony to miss out on the economic boom of the 1990s. Nearly $1 million in pledges, meanwhile, had gone uncollected. Arch Media, the symphony's recording label, had sucked away another $500,000.

In response, Roth scaled back the symphony's touring schedule, raised ticket prices, reduced staff through attrition and shuttered Arch Media.

But those were temporary measures. Real relief did not arrive until December 2000, when Enterprise Rent-A-Car founder Jack Taylor stepped forward with a $40 million grant. Worried his gift might be squandered, Taylor stipulated that the orchestra would have to match his funds by the end of 2004. The lion's share of $80 million would be earmarked for the endowment, and the symphony would have to maintain its traditional $6.5 million Annual Giving Program. Taylor also asked family friend Randy Adams to take a look at the books.

Adams, who'd recently retired from US Bank, came onboard as a consultant in early 2001. Within months he was running the place.

"When I started working with the management, it became very clear they were going to be bankrupt in about eighteen months and needed to take radical action," recalls Adams, who says his first task was to raise $30 million in stopgap funding. "The Taylors were dismayed to discover that the organization was going to be dead by the time it matched the money."

Adams embarked on a course of fiscal austerity and frenetic fundraising. He also met with the musicians and pleaded with them to open emergency contract negotiations.

"The plan we put together basically involved cutting $7 million in expenses out of a $28 million budget," Adams says. "It seemed outrageous: No orchestra musicians had agreed to a pay cut in the last twenty years, the most the symphony had ever raised was $20 million, and that was over a course of five years. Here we were asking for $30 million in six months. In cash."

The existing contract called for base pay to top $80,000 by the 2004-'05 season. Adams persuaded the musicians to shrink the performance season from 52 weeks to 42 weeks and reduce base pay to $61,000 (though two $1 million bridge loans from philanthropists Mary Strauss and Emily Pulitzer softened the blow, upping actual pay to $73,000 for the duration). Adams also inserted a stipulation that if no permanent revenue were found, salaries would start at $61,000 in the next round of negotiations.

By the summer of 2004, Adams had matched the Taylor gift. In the coming months, he would raise another $16 million, ultimately growing the endowment from $18 million to roughly $112 million.

"I still pinch myself," says Adams. "I thought at best we had a 15 to 20 percent chance of pulling this off. If we didn't do it, the alternative was bankruptcy. But the musicians stepped up. The community stepped up."

Still, Adams wasn't satisfied. The linchpin of his plan was to make room for the SLSO in the region's Zoo-Museum Tax District, a property tax whose proceeds support designated cultural institutions. Adams estimates that inclusion in the tax district would provide the symphony with $7 million to $8 million in annual operating revenue. He'd intended to launch a public relations campaign to get the initiative on last November's ballot but abandoned the campaign when advance polling found weak public support.

"That would have been the final stroke to get us back to full financial health," Adams says. "So we're not out of the woods. As it stands we have planned losses that take us out to 2010, when we finally break even."

Hefty endowments have long been a fixture in educational institutions, but the notion is relatively new among symphony orchestras.

"Forty years ago it was considered that a terrific endowment was [one that was] equal to the budget," says Henry Fogel, who served for eighteen years as president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before heading the American Symphony Orchestra League. "About twenty years ago that model became two times [the budget], and then in the '90s it became three times."

The concept is simple: Orchestras invest endowment funds in a mixed portfolio of stocks and bonds, anticipating an 8 percent annual return. Assuming 3 percent inflation, that leaves a 5 percent "draw" from the endowment for operating expenses.

"There are three streams of revenue for an orchestra," Fogel elaborates. "Though there is a wide range here, these days it is fairly typical that 45 percent of the budget will be earned revenue" -- i.e., ticket sales. "If it has the right kind of endowment, it will get 15 percent from the endowment, and the remaining 40 percent is all annual fundraising."

For an endowment to deliver 15 percent of the annual budget on a 5 percent draw, the endowment must be triple the size of the budget. But Adams has grown the SLSO's endowment to nearly six times its $21 million budget, which equates to roughly 30 percent of funding.

"In the year 2000, the endowment was giving 2 percent to the annual budget. That was the big problem," says Adams. "By growing and preserving the endowment, we're thinking about future generations. As the endowment's earning power builds, it will begin filling in more and more revenue."

The idea is a novel one. In an economic climate with dwindling patience for struggling arts organizations, a sizable endowment will help insulate the symphony should annual giving falter. It also removes some of the annual fundraising pressure, theoretically allowing the SLSO to concentrate on music-making -- and possibly to broaden its audience base with lower ticket prices.

"Would [Adams'] model take a lot of the pressure off and allow the orchestra to take more artistic risks? The answer is absolutely yes," Fogel says. "If it is true that many of the large orchestras are having a shortfall, maybe the current model isn't the right one. Randy Adams is a very smart man. I admire his finance knowledge and his willingness to look a business model in the face and say, 'It's wrong, and I think we ought to look for a different model.'"

During last winter's labor negotiations, the musicians agreed that the endowment should not be raided to fund salary increases. But they asked Adams to secure funding earmarked specifically for salaries. He balked.

"[Adams] says, 'No, I don't have that money to spend. The [money] is for the endowment, and I only have 5 percent,'" says Jan Gippo, who was on the negotiating committee and is the chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, a conference within the symphony's union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). "He isn't going to pay us, because he's saying that he doesn't have enough money to sustain those rates."

The musicians inquired about a bridge loan similar to the $2 million bailout of 2001. "He said we're not going to have any more stopgap funding," Gippo recounts. "He wouldn't even think about it."

Responds Adams: "I couldn't find it. There were people willing to give $10,000 or $20,000 [toward a bridge loan], but I needed $1 million. And that would just delay the problem.

"You don't raise the kind of money we have in this community unless you have the trust and confidence of major donors," Adams adds. "To get that we had to regain trust from a number of people who were fed up with the symphony. If I had agreed to something that would blow our plan, we would not raise another penny."

Management called the ensuing work stoppage a "strike"; musicians called it a "lockout." Either way, it was a bitter conflict: Management cut off musicians' healthcare benefits, a move that came to light after cellist Melissa Brooks-Rubright brought her toddler to the emergency room with a fever-induced seizure and was informed by the billing office that she wasn't covered. Adams also barred English horn player Marc Gordon from recording in Powell Hall when he discovered that a member of the musicians' negotiating committee, principal trumpeter Susan Slaughter, was booked as a participant. And weeks into the work stoppage, Adams filed a complaint with the St. Louis office of the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the musicians had failed to file the proper paperwork and were therefore engaged in an illegal strike.

Fearing a fine, officials from the American Federation of Musicians local said the players would return to work for 30 days in order to satisfy the law, then walk out again. But after the NLRB in St. Louis suggested that the strike was illegal, the local urged musicians to head back to the negotiating table rather than put up a fight in federal court. A mediation session was arranged, and the musicians approved a contract.

Many players remain bitter, asserting that the AFM local bowed unnecessarily. Even if the court had ruled against them, they could have restarted the process after the required 30 days back at work. "How could that have happened?" Gippo asks rhetorically. "If the local had backed us. But they didn't. They sided with management. They betrayed us."

Before signing, the musicians passed a vote of no-confidence in Adams. But in the end they agreed to a three-and-a-half-year contract with base pay starting at $74,000, plus a $2,500 signing bonus (a gift from an anonymous donor). Salaries are to increase $1,000 per year, with a $4,000 bonus to be paid at the end of the final year. In the next round of negotiations, bargaining will open at $76,000.

Every musician interviewed for this article praised their executive director's fundraising prowess. But they fear Adams' cure may kill them.

"He saved us," says violist Lynn Hague. "He saved us by cutting off our arms and legs."

I've had a deal with myself to retire before I started sounding bad," says Marc Gordon between sips of Saint Louis Bread Co. coffee. "But watching what's been happening over the past three or four years here -- and then the eight-week work stoppage -- really pushed me to the decision. As I told Randy Adams: It is a miserable environment."

Far from "sounding bad," the Chicago native retired from the SLSO at the top of his game. Widely recognized as one of the nation's most gifted musicians, Gordon was snapped up for several concerts by the Chicago symphony when word leaked he'd be leaving St. Louis after 33 years.

"This orchestra has given and given and given," Gordon says of the musicians. "When is it going to come back? You can't ask people to give up so much for so long [without] paying them back. It's been too long."

Gordon is not alone. Elisa Barston, associate concertmaster at the SLSO for eight years, resigned earlier this summer.

"Seeing how poorly my colleagues were treated -- that was the first thing," says Barston, who says she had fully intended to return but left the symphony without securing another permanent position. "The real clincher was that after the work stoppage, I was mailed a contract that in no way resembled any of the contracts I had had previously. I had had a [contractually] guaranteed yearly solo with the orchestra -- that had been in my contract since day one. It was gone, and I got no explanation as to why. None."

Musicians say more desertions are likely to follow. "We were left with no choices," says Amy Oshiro, a violinist. "One consequence is that people will be actively and aggressively auditioning. I don't think anyone can deny it, and I don't think anyone should shy away from that fact."

Interviews with other players confirm that at least nine members are auditioning for other orchestras. Musicians say the number may well be higher, because many will not advertise their job search.

One potential defector is trombonist Gerard Pagano. A ten-year veteran of the SLSO, Pagano has yet to audition.

"I play bass trombone, of which there is only one in the orchestra, so there are rarely auditions to take," says the 48-year-old Pagano. "At this point in life, I have no interest in going and auditioning. But because of what's happened here -- our job hasn't gotten any better in the last few years. [Meanwhile] the Atlanta symphony has steadily been getting better. In the past I wouldn't have considered Atlanta, whereas now I do."

He's far from the only one, Pagano stresses. "If it hasn't rained, it may take a while for the grass to turn brown: There are a lot of people who can't just turn around tomorrow and take an audition," he says. "It may take them a year or two. It also may take five years before you see the effect, because it may take that long to see who comes to replace the people who leave."

Others maintain that the slow bleed has been going on for at least a decade, during which time more than 30 people have left. (Some simply retired -- or died -- but the musicians point out that replacements have frequently stayed for only a few years, then moved on.)

"We grappled with it. But I was basically thinking: I've got a family. This would be one of my last chances, at 39 [years old], to make things a little more stable in the music business," recalls French horn player Robert Lauver, who left the SLSO after the 1999-2000 season to join the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. "Nowadays the only chance to recognize a group's talent is when you're setting the pay scale, but you're also setting up the structure by which incoming talent decides where they want to go. [I left at] exactly the time Don Roth was openly examining the financial situation of the orchestra. It didn't look good."

Says Pagano: "After a while it gets hard to keep your morale up. It feels like rats jumping from a sinking ship."

It's difficult to assess the quality of a symphony orchestra. But some elements are quantifiable. Among them: salary, touring, recording, length of season and repertoire. In all five categories, SLSO musicians say, they're headed in the wrong direction.

With a base salary of $74,000, St. Louis ranks sixteenth among the nation's orchestras. (When the figure is adjusted to account for the shorter season, St. Louis rises to ninth.) By comparison, base salaries in Cleveland, a Big Five orchestra in a similar market, exceed $100,000. Cleveland has an operating budget of $36 million and an endowment of roughly $120 million. The numbers in St. Louis are $21 million and $112 million, respectively.

The SLSO last released a recording in 2000. The orchestra has not traveled abroad in seven years, and its season length hovers at 42 weeks, a fact that weighs heavily on the minds of musicians.

"We don't play a classical concert from May first to the end of the second week -- or even the third week -- of September," says violist Christian Woehr. "You tend to forget you're in the Saint Louis Symphony."

Woehr and his colleagues argue that a 52-week season is important to musicians symbolically: The great orchestras of North America all play 52-week seasons, and without a year-round schedule the SLSO has little chance of penetrating the club.

Finally, there's the matter of orchestra size and repertoire. In 1979 the SLSO boasted 101 permanent players. Today management is obligated to field 90 players, with the understanding that additional musicians will be brought on for larger symphonic works. (Conductor David Robertson's contract calls for four permanent players to be added in the coming years.) A sort of magic number, 100 players give symphony orchestras the rich, deep sound that makes the symphonies of Wagner and Strauss envelop listeners.

But even as the SLSO has operated with at least 90 members, roughly eight of those players are "replacements." This means they don't receive benefits. It also results in a constant churn of newcomers entering the ranks.

"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."

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.

"We are not a world-class orchestra any longer," says one wind player, who declined to be identified in print. "David Robertson is an unknown: He could be the savior of this orchestra, or he could be the savior of the members of this orchestra."

Many are also unconvinced that Robertson is on for the long haul. Orchestral circles are rife with rumors that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic aim to woo the maestro away from Powell. "Is David Robertson going to be here in twenty years?" Slaughter asks. "I don't think so. I'll be very happy if we can hang onto him for three or four years."

For the present, though, Robertson promises a season heavily weighted toward modern composers. He has an ardent faith in music's ability to heal past wounds and sees in St. Louis a unique opportunity to return symphonic music to a position of broad cultural relevance.

"In the end, we're coming down to the question of what is the place and importance of something artistic in our society. This is a very large question that most of the time is not dealt with at all," the conductor says. "I think that in St. Louis we're going to be looking at that problem in the larger context of music in the community: what it does for people and how it relates to everybody. I think that in St. Louis we're much closer to making that essential case for music -- whatever kind it may be -- than any other institution that I've seen in the U.S."

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.