"The St. Louis Symphony wore its heart on its tuxedo sleeve Friday night when it stopped at Orchestra Hall during its U.S. tour... At its best, the St. Louis Symphony has a warm, lean sound..."
- Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 13, 1994
"Spending two evenings with this orchestra generates a genuine fondness for it. The sound is big, warm and very intense... It seemed to swim through the Sibelius on Friday, every edge rounded, every texture smothered in love."
- Bernard Holland, New York Times, April 2, 2007
In the 13 years between the time that the two reviews above appeared in Chicago and New York, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra has played under three music directors, Leonard Slatkin, Hans Vonk, and David Robertson. By 2007, about half of the musicians who played in the orchestra in 1994 were gone, replaced by other musicians who, in some cases, had themselves been replaced. Over the years the repertoire the musicians played changed as well. And yet two trained listeners in two different decades found the orchestra to be much the same. It was warm and impassioned. It "wore its heart on its sleeve," with "every texture smothered in love." (Holland's comment wasn't exactly a compliment, which in itself reveals an aesthetic argument: technique vs. expression.) Musicians of the SLSO agree that the orchestra has a tradition of warmth and passion, of heart and soul, which goes back many years and continues today.
On average, four musicians leave the orchestra every year and four new ones come in. "I think of the orchestra as a multi-celled organism that every year loses some cells but gets new ones," says Kathleen Mattis, who has been with the symphony for 32 seasons and is Associate Principal Viola. "The parts change, but the body stays the same."
The dominant instruments in a symphony orchestra belong to the string section. More than half of the 96 musicians in the SLSO are string players, and, musicians say, the St. Louis string section has an identifiable sound that goes back many years.
As Concertmaster, violinist David Halen is, among other things, the leader of the string section. "There's a thickness and a warmth to the string section that other orchestras don't necessarily have," he says. "It goes back as far as I can remember."
Halen is 49 years old and joined the orchestra in 1990. He says, "I grew up in Missouri, in Warrensburg and Springfield, and I remember the tradition all the way back to my childhood. Leonard Slatkin strengthened it, and the tradition has been perpetuated because we have had a series of great conductors." Slatkin was Music Director from 1979 to 1996.
How is that tradition passed on to new members? "There can be some verbal communication," Halen explains. "But the strongest communication is non-verbal. The best example you can give is how you play in the section when you are playing together. There is a great deal of communication that takes place when you're playing, no matter how subtle it is. A new member will come in and will be affected by the tradition of the orchestra."
Does that mean that the orchestra never changes, that a new member has no effect on the sound of the orchestra? "No," says Halen. "Musicians have changed the sound. Unequivocally. When you hire one wind soloist, it will create a totally different sound. And what I hear from the wind section affects my playing. And the conductor will be affected.
"Rick Holmes, our timpani player, will affect how I play a piece. I told him the other day that I couldn't imagine playing the Bruckner Eighth Symphony with someone else. What he does so strongly affects what I play."
But the basic traditions of the St. Louis orchestra remain, symphony members say. Barbara Orland, Assistant Principal Oboe, has been with the Symphony for 32 years. She says, "When people from other orchestras hear the Symphony, they observe something different: an electricity, an excitement."
Orland says the SLSO is also known among symphony musicians for a sense of camaraderie, of collegiality. Oboist Philip Ross, who joined the orchestra in 2005, says when he first heard the ensemble, he thought, "It sounds like people are excited about what they do, and enjoy doing it together."
"People here play with a lot of commitment," says Jonathan Vinocour, Principal Viola, who joined the orchestra in 2007. "In some places, that is not considered the way to do it; you find a reluctance to throw yourself into the music."
One way the traditions are maintained, says Music Director David Robertson, is through the choices made by audition committees, which are made up of (generally) ten members of the orchestra.
"I am the one musician who sits in on every audition committee," Robertson says, "and one of the constants that I have seen in St. Louis between two players who both really play fabulously is that the one who really takes chances to play the meaning behind the notes is the one the jury will choose every time. Technical perfection is great, but technical perfection without heart is something the Saint Louis Symphony does not choose.
"There is a warmth and emotionality to the sound that I don't always find with other orchestras," says Robertson. "That is why I love making music with the Saint Louis Symphony."
Harper Barnes is the author of Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement.