On Super Bowl Sunday Jeremy Geffen is learning a few of the quirks of St. Louis. The new Vice President of Artistic Administration for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Geffen has taken this weekend to find an apartment and a car in what will be his new home. He's moving from New York City, where he held a similar position at the New York Philharmonic. In New York, especially in Manhattan where Geffen has been living, a car is more of a nuisance than an asset. In St. Louis, a car is a necessity. However, Geffen discovers, even though the Sunday Post-Dispatch is loaded with auto ads, on Sundays in St. Louis auto dealerships are closed. Go figure.
Then there is the search for an apartment. When Geffen sits down for a pre-Super Bowl interview, he displays a kind of wide-eyed awe at the space to be found in St. Louis. If one were to transport those recently renovated downtown St. Louis lofts to New York City, only the regal pashas of 21st-century Manhattan could afford to live in them. In St. Louis, it's a spacious home for a young professional newly arrived. Welcome to the New World, Jeremy Geffen.
Geffen's history reveals a great capacity for change. He was training as a violist before the effects of a childhood injury would cut short that career. He has worked in the education department of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and has experienced the for-profit side of the music business with ICM Artists. Before he moved to the New York Philharmonic, he served as associate artistic administrator for the Aspen Music Festival.
A fourth-generation South African, Geffen was born in Cape Town. "It is a little-known fact," he offers as historical background, "that almost every Jewish family you meet in South Africa has Lithuanian ancestry. I assume this is because there was a fast boat from Vilna." When Geffen and his twin brother were three, his parents moved the family to the United States.
Geffen became fascinated with the violin, but when he reached junior high and was asked what instrument he wanted to play, he said, 'viola,' thinking it was smaller and higher pitched than the violin. "I got the instrument," he recalls, "and I was confused."
That mistake, however, soon became the focus of his life. Geffen studied viola at the University of Southern California. Then, the latent effects of that accident‹which had occurred when Geffen was less than three‹freakishly began to play havoc on his ability to bow. He'd lost some of the flesh padding on his thumb, and for a violist, that tiny bit of padding acts as a shock absorber where the thumb comes in contact with the bow. Due to the intense, repetitive use, the pain was so severe that Geffen was unable to turn a key in a lock, much less practice his instrument. "It was a really hard time," he says. "But I look back and I think that probably the right thing happened."
To fill the hours that he had once spent practicing, he happened upon an internship with the L.A. Philharmonic. It was in education and community outreach where Geffen's career in administration began. "I arranged for kids to come to rehearsals and for artists to talk to them afterward," he says. "That was a great deal of fun. I really enjoyed it. It was hard work, because a lot of the schools were public and didn't have the money or the resources to do things correctly. In California, when money was cut from the schools, the arts were the first targets‹as they always are. This is sad, because at the end of the day the arts are what develop the imagination."
Given his early commitment to education, it is no surprise that one of the things that attracted Geffen to St. Louis was the SLSO's Education and Community Partnership Program. "It's the most developed of any orchestra I know," he declares. "It has a very positive feel."
Geffen was also drawn to St. Louis by the prospect of working with the SLSO's new music director. "I've worked with David Robertson at Aspen and at the New York Philharmonic and I've enjoyed it immensely," he says. "The opportunity to spend more time working with him is very attractive."
Geffen's job description, as he defines it, is "to be responsible for the overall planning of the season with the music director, making sure that we wind up with a balanced season to present at the highest possible level artistically. There are the more mundane business sides‹negotiation of contracts, scheduling‹but those actually are artistic considerations in the end. I guess if you want a one-sentence description, my job is to plan the season with the music director."
Geffen is just beginning to learn the quirks of St. Louis, but he already anticipates what will be the core of his life here. "The Saint Louis Symphony seems to be an organization that has its priorities straight," he says. "It has made realizations that have not been made by a number of the major orchestras. It has been through trial by fire, or several trials by fire, and seems to have emerged better for it. It just seems that this is an organization poised to do great things right now."
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.