Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra: Sonic Youth

Classic Arts Features   Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra: Sonic Youth
Ward Stare has become the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's Resident Conductor. The 26-year-old also leads the Youth Orchestra.

Seven-year-old Ward Stare tilted the album jackets out one by one, staring at the bold letters and intent faces on their covers. "Pick one and we'll play it," his dad finally offered, and Stare passed through all the jazz and blues and psychedelic rock 'n' roll and plucked Beethoven.

"I made him keep putting on more Beethoven, all the symphonies, that day," Stare recalls, "and when I found out Beethoven was deaf when he wrote half of them, that just blew me away." He begged his teacher to let him do a presentation on Beethoven; slightly taken aback, she agreed. "The other kids sat around sort of kicking their legs," he recalls, "probably not a hundred-percent interested in what I was saying. But I was really interested in trying to tell them."

When it came time to pick an instrument, Ward picked the trombone, because that's what his father played for fun in a local band. In no time, Ward was very, very good. And one night, he and his dad walked into the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra boutique and happened to meet Dr. David Harman, Music Director of the RPO Youth Orchestra.

Ward's dad explained in a rush that his son was 11, probably too young for the Youth Orchestra but immensely talented and eager... . "Well, have him audition," said the director, skeptical but looking for an escape. Soon after, a quaking Ward auditioned: and was accepted.

Now, 15 years later, he's been named Resident Conductor of the SLSO, and will direct the acclaimed Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. SLSO Music Director David Robertson first met Stare last January. Stare was a conducting fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Robertson was guest conductor; together, they lead the Philharmonic in Ives's Central Park in the Dark, and Robertson "saw the complete control he had, the ability to do what is an almost mystical thing: I start, he starts, and we have to finish in the same place, and there's no way you can do it without complete trust. If it's working, it's magic, and if it's not, it's very hard to fix. That, to me, seems exactly the type of relationship one wants with a conductor, where it just works. So I was delighted when he put his candidature forward."

Stare trained at the Juilliard School and became Principal Trombone for the Lyric Opera Chicago at 18. But he'd wanted to conduct since: well, since Beethoven. At 21, an idea seized him: "We have a 26-week season, I'm young, and I have the resources; why am I not doing this?" He flew to Paris and studied conducting with private teachers at the Paris Conservatory and L'Ecole Normale. He has since conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, and he will conduct the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester in Berlin this spring.

Also a teacher, Stare coached the Chicago Youth Symphony brass section and has taught trombone since high school. "One thing I've always tried to do is emphasize the musical point of view: what you're trying to say," he remarks. "You do need to know where to put the bow, where to put the fingers, but if you get stuck in that technical minutiae, you lose the big picture, and the joy of the music-making starts to evaporate."

What he wants young musicians to have, first and foremost, is "the experience of playing great music at a really high level in a wonderful hall with friends. Most people don't have that experience ever. The only people I'm in touch with from my teenage years were in the youth orchestra, not even in my own school. And the youth orchestra in St. Louis is a very, very good orchestra; there are only a few in the country in the same class."

Not all its members will go on to careers as professional musicians, but all will be changed by the music, he predicts. "Music can help people look a bit deeper into their lives. It's thought-provoking; it stimulates introspection and can bring out people who are very shy. It leads to discoveries."

Stare spent two summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where he won conducting prizes and studied with David Zinman (who will conduct Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust with the SLSO April 17 and 18). "He taught me about the architecture," Stare says, referring to a conductor's responsibility for building an edifice in which every note relates to the whole. "He also really knows how an orchestra works: how in a certain passage, you need to look at the basses here to move this phrase. Little insights you can only get from experience."

For his part, Zinman says what he noticed about Ward was "whenever I gave him a suggestion, he could take it and learn from it, make something of it. That's not always the case!" Asked how Stare has changed under his tutelage, Zinman mentions "his command on the podium. Before he was flailing a bit; now he knows what he's doing."

Stare chuckles. "I used to be leaning and bending to get closer to the musicians, and he finally got me to stop. 'Quit squatting!' he'd say. And now that I've said that I'll probably do it again."

Jeannette Cooperman is a staff writer for St. Louis magazine.

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