Arts - If Music Is To MatterIt’s the community concerts, not the international acclaim, that will keep our world-class symphony alive.
By Lynnda Greene
As I joined an enthusiastic crowd of St. Louisans on Art Hill last September for the first of the many free community concerts the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra would give through the season, I wondered about the so-called death of classical music. What could be more alive, I thought, than 2,000 people of every conceivable age and social demographic listening to two hours of superb music-making on a grassy slope in Forest Park?
How disappointing it was when, six months later, that night’s starry magic dissolved into a messy labor debacle, a spectacle particularly disappointing in light of the fact that St. Louisans had recently raised record-setting millions, in record time, to save the orchestra from bankruptcy. Though the whole thing was finally settled—with little given up or gained by either side—we all lost through what became, in the end, the bathetic opera buffa of two bald men arguing over a comb.
The news about classical music is not good these days. Those of us who love it often wonder whether, in a time of graying audiences, decreasing subscription numbers, unbalanced budgets and curtailed schedules, this music can survive into the new century. Yet throughout last winter’s difficult negotiations to balance artistic integrity and fiscal responsibility, I kept hearing one term: “world-class.” Our orchestra is world-class, both musicians and management reasoned, and unless we (a) pay musicians enough to attract the best players and (b) maintain long-term financial viability, it won’t remain world-class.
They’re right, of course. And wrong—because at a time when all orchestras struggle for audiences, the argument can’t be about “world-class” anymore. “Music doesn’t need any more international stars,” New York Times critic Bernard Holland wrote recently of American orchestras. “It needs people who stay home and serve their neighbors.” The future of classical music isn’t global—it’s local. The world economy has little use for a symphony that plays Beethoven or Gershwin or anything else. St. Louis does.
And always has, which is why the symphony remains a crucial component of our city’s heritage. Believing as it has from its founding that the world’s greatest music should be available to all, the SLSO has in recent years set a new benchmark in innovative community concerts and outreach activities across the region’s 12 counties. In the last decade, the orchestra’s efforts have expanded to include more than 300 free festivals, chamber events, classes and, through the IN UNISON partnership, worship services with 30 area African-American churches. Every year, 750 buses unload 45,000 students from more than 1,000 area schools for educational concerts at Powell Hall itself; every year, the musicians leave the hall to teach musically gifted children in their own schools. The Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, composed of outstanding young musicians from 36 schools, may be one of the best in the country.
Most important, however, are the dozens of free chamber concerts the musicians give in our neighborhoods and workplaces. Thirty-four percent of those who hear the SLSO do so outside Powell Hall; 40 percent hear the orchestra free or for a nominal charge. That attendance at these community events has burgeoned testifies to the timeless power of this music, in this city, to touch individual lives. After all, most of us go to concerts not for social cachet but to experience something indescribable. The SLSO has correctly recognized that the orchestra will thrive only to the degree that it shows us why the music is great, why what it makes us feel can lift and change us. At a time when so much is “wrong” in the classical business, the success of these free community performances proves what is, and always will be, right about classical music.
Everything was right and then some the night I attended a concert in April. The new energy and sizzle that David Robertson, our dynamic young music director, has brought to the organization since his appointment two years ago arced through the hall. “That was so great!” exclaimed beaming concertmaster David Halen to the maestro as the last triumphant chord of a splendid Ives symphony roused everyone to celebratory cheers Powell Hall had not heard for far too long.
That Robertson loves these musicians and they him was duly noted in rapturous reviews of their Carnegie Hall concert a few days later by New York critics clearly envious of our good fortune. But our new maestro understands something far more important and truly revolutionary in a tradition-shackled business: that if this music is to matter, it must matter to its own community. The SLSO’s handsome new season brochure, notable for arty photos of jeaned-and-sneakered musicians clearly rejoicing in what they can do with a man who talks warmly, directly, about this music in this place, reflects a whole new vision of what the symphony and the city can become together. Thank you, Maestro, for understanding that our orchestra’s greatest achievement will be attained not in New York but right here, in our own hall, in our schools, churches and parks ... where the music and those who make it are not only world-class but great.