"For my students, a visit to Powell Symphony Hall is like being inside Cinderella's castle," says Juli Duncan, a first-grade teacher at Meramec Elementary School in Clayton. Last October, during a Kinder Konzert in that "castle," a dream was born.
Seven-year-old Mark Blumenfeld so enjoyed the music that he and his classmates heard that day that he was moved to do activities about the Symphony in class. His keen interest in music and the Orchestra impressed Duncan, in part because her husband, Stephen Duncan, is the Symphony's vice president and director of marketing.
Mark also announced to his parents, Andrew and Sarah Blumenfeld, that he wanted to play the violin. To his delight, his grandmother happened to have one stored in the attic. And, although he had difficulty playing the full-sized instrument, that didn't deter Mark. In December, the Blumenfeld family and SLSO associate concertmaster Elisa Barston happened to attend the same dinner party at the home of a mutual friend. During the course of the evening, when Mark learned that Elisa played the violin for the Symphony, he courageously popped the question: "Will you be my violin teacher?"
"His innocence and sincerity were irresistible," says Elisa, who replied, "I would love to be your teacher." And so unfolded a partnership fueled by a common love for music. "I can be having a rotten day, but when I see Mark, the day is bright again," she says. "He is a fast learner, visits my home twice a week, and clearly practices."
His family can testify to that. "One time I woke up my mom when I practiced," says Mark, whose older brothers play music, too. (Sam, 11, plays piano and the cello, while Jacob, 13, plays piano, guitar, and French horn.) Mr. and Mrs. Blumenfeld note that the bond between pupil and teacher has given Mark a goal; after school, without being prompted, he practices and listens to CDs that Elisa has lent him.
"It is exciting and gratifying to have a young associate concertmaster taking the young generation under her wing," says Stephen Duncan. "Elisa Barston's dedication, our education concerts, and the desire of our musicians to have a positive effect on youngsters illustrates this orchestra's commitment to young people."
"This is one of the most miraculous things ever to drop into our lives," says Sarah Blumenfeld. "Elisa and Mark have been virtually inseparable." Together they've visited the Zoo, the Butterfly House, and backstage at Powell, where Mark gave a cookie he baked and decorated to violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn. And for a week this summer Mark attended the Chicago Suzuki Institute, conducted by Elisa's mother, Gilda Barston.
Another memorable day was March 19, as Elisa‹on her day off‹joined Mark's class on a school bus to Powell for his second Kinder Konzert. The down-to-earth artist's love of children, her colleagues and friends say, is as deep as her talent as a violinist and leader in the orchestra.
"Elisa sat with us, and after everyone left, we played our violins on stage," says Mark.
"I wanted him to hear how his violin sounds in Powell Hall," Elisa explains.
Thinking big at age seven, Mark adds: "Maybe some day I'll get to be Elisa's stand partner."
Bill Townsend is a communications specialist for SBC SMART Yellow Pages and a member of the Saint Louis Symphony Volunteer Association.