This month, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra embarks on a tour of California, following up on visits in 2010, 2013, and 2016. Four stops will bring them up the coast, from Palm Desert in the Coachella Valley, to sunny Santa Barbara, to the University of California, Davis, and finally to Stanford University. In addition to more than 90 musicians and tons of instruments and equipment, the orchestra brings a three-piece program of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face Suite, Britten’s Violin Concerto with soloist Augustin Hadelich, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1.
“This is not just an orchestra coming in and showing off with the standard repertoire,” says music director David Robertson. “One thing that’s always intrigued the presenters in California is that we bring them an actual artistic project,” he adds, calling the pieces “an example of the kind of intelligent programming we try to do in St. Louis.” (The same program, in fact, is offered at Powell Hall, January 12–13.)
Robertson praises the depth of feeling in all three pieces, and mentions a connection between the English Benjamin Britten and the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich: They were friends, and admirers of each other’s music, who connected in the 1960s through their mutual collaborator, the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
Adès, on the other hand, is arguably the leading English composer of today. His 2016 opera, The Exterminating Angel, is currently making a splash at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, so the SLSO’s tour with his Powder Her Face Suite is especially of-the-moment. The work draws from his 1995 opera of the same name, and is presented by the SLSO with newly-added movements, making this a West Coast premiere. The original opera is about a 20th-century duchess (the real-life Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll), and the sex scandals that surrounded her. The orchestral suite, Robertson says, harkens back to dancehall music and popular styles of an earlier era.
Three of the tour stops are return visits for the SLSO, but the UC Davis stop is a full-blown residency that builds on an ongoing relationship between the orchestra and the university.
“When we went to UCD last time, I worked with some of the students,” Robertson says. “We did a side-by-side concert with some of the students in the orchestra, we worked with some young composers, and we played some chamber music as kind of pop-up concerts at sculptures around the campus.”
This year, the orchestra is again offering a side-by-side concert, with selections from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and also offering a reading sessions for student composers. Some of the university’s composers already visited St. Louis to try their newly-written pieces with the orchestra, which will play revised versions on the California campus. “We don’t come in like some kind of musical paratroopers,” Robertson says. “We want to actually leave the kind of richness a symphony orchestra can bring in a way that’s lasting and meaningful.”
The entire trip will be especially poignant because it will be Robertson’s last time on the road with the orchestra before he steps down as music director at the end of the season. Touring has been a hallmark of his tenure, reviving a traveling tradition which had waned before his directorship.
“The orchestra was going to Carnegie Hall on a semi-regular basis, once every couple of years, when I started,” Robertson recalls. “Those were simply going to New York for one or two concerts and coming back. I said we need to add things, so one strategy was to add Amherst, or Ann Arbor, or something that was on the way.”
Next, he encouraged the orchestra to give more concerts around the Midwest, increasing the number of run-out concerts, which are essentially regional day trip performances.
“I knew we need to get to the point we could do run-outs that were father away, that might require an overnight stay at a hotel,” Robertson says. “So we had a run out to Chicago where we played in the Harris Theater—we played a concert here on Saturday night, and Sunday we were playing in Chicago.”
Finally, in 2010, the orchestra mounted its first California tour with Robertson. For the first time in ten years, the SLSO was away from home for five days straight, playing a concert each day. “I knew it was necessary for the orchestra to get back into the rhythm of doing that,” Robertson says.
Touring brings many benefits to an orchestra—it’s about more than showing off to different crowds on the road. “It is really important,” Robertson stresses. “It allows the orchestra to hear themselves in completely different acoustics, it allows them to play for different audiences and hear those audience’s reactions, and it lets people get to know their colleagues in a way that is slightly outside their regular habits. These small changes can have a big impact, you don’t hear yourself the same way afterwards.” He pauses before adding, “plus, just trying to get to the bus on time. All these things build a real tight sense of esprit de corps.”
Jeffrey Strong, who plays trumpet in the SLSO, has experienced this. “Each hall presents its own unique set of challenges,” he writes by email. “The size, shape, and materials of the stage and hall affect our ability to hear each other. Some halls have warm, lush acoustics, while others are very dry and cool.”
Sometimes this proves an advantage for certain pieces: “I will never forget our performance of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles... (From the Canyons to the Stars…) at Walt Disney Concert Hall during our last California tour,” Strong writes. “The clarity of the acoustics was just right for the intricacies of that piece, and we were able to hear and react to each other in a way that raised our performance to an even higher level.”
Touring also brings a kind of focus that’s hard to find at home. While the SLSO gives two or three concerts a week at Powell Hall, they might give four or five in a row while traveling. And while the road can be exhausting, it can also be freeing. “We’re removed from a lot of everyday distractions,” Strong explains. “We don’t have to worry about doing our laundry or our dishes. It’s liberating because you can really focus completely on the music.”
Robertson reflects on his accomplishments, including regional run-outs, Carnegie Hall trips, and extended tours to California and Europe.
“We’ve managed to touch all those bases,” he says. “From when I got to the orchestra to now, there’s been a huge reappraisal of the quality of the SLSO for the better, and that’s something I’m very proud of.”
Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer, writer, and publications consultant to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.