Keeping It Real

Classic Arts Features   Keeping It Real
When it was near bankruptcy, the Saint Louis Symphony faced the music, with Dr. Virginia Weldon as its champion.

"This is a great symphony at great risk," Dr. Virginia Weldon announced in April 2000 when she was the newly elected Chairman of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's Board of Trustees. A year later it was discovered that the SLSO was at even greater risk than anyone could have imagined. Today Weldon puts it most graphically: "The wheels were coming off the wagon." The organization was near bankruptcy. Over the next four years, Weldon continued passionately and tirelessly to make her pitch to save the symphony.

As she leaves her chairmanship this month, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra is still here playing Bartók, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff. And its future Music Director is taking the podium to begin a highly anticipated New Year. It is inarguable that without the steadfast leadership and devotion of Weldon, none of this would be taking place.

"She genuinely loves music," says Concertmaster David Halen. "She wants to make the world, and our community, a better place to live. She had no idea what she was getting into when she became chairman but she rose up to a challenge no one could have prepared her for."

Weldon's gift for pragmatism, for making the pitch for the orchestra in her own effective ways, came from a personal history in which the factual and artistic were wed. She grew up with a love of music and studied piano (she still does), but as her mother dreamed of her daughter performing in the concert halls of the world, the more practical Weldon realized she had a better opportunity in the field of medicine. So she trained as a pediatric endocrinologist at Johns Hopkins University and spent 21 years at the Washington University School of Medicine before going on to serve as Senior Vice President of Public Policy at Monsanto.

Throughout her professional career, however, Weldon's love of music and her concern for community remained central to her. "I grew up in a family where my father always made it very clear that it was a responsibility to give back to the community in whatever way you could," Weldon says. "I believe in that very strongly, and I always have."

Her beliefs were severely tested during the orchestra's crises. Suzanne Leek has served as Weldon's assistant throughout the chairman's tenure. "As I look back," says Leek, "it was providential that she was here when all came to light. I don't know what we would have done if we didn't have a chairman to devote the time and the passion that Virginia has."

"One of the defining moments for me," says Halen, "was when it became apparent what we had to do. She talked to me personally and she told me she would need my unswerving support. As a musician it was a scary time for us, but I knew I could believe in her. She has iron-willed integrity, youthful exuberance, and a roll-up-your-sleeves, let's-get-it-done attitude. She assured me she would not give up." And neither Weldon, the organization, nor the community did.

"It was her mission to save the orchestra," says Amy Oshiro, Halen's colleague in the first violins. "She made it work. She had a personal passion‹for the music, for the organization, for this orchestra. She set out to not just maintain an orchestra, but to maintain the quality of that orchestra. Speaking as a musician, that's really important."

Passion, devotion, and commitment are words that come up often when people speak of Weldon. Another word often used is real. "It was my great privilege to work with her," says Leek. "Virginia has been my friend. She is really dear to me. The quality that I appreciate the most about her is that she is so real. I would hear her call people to thank them when they gave ten dollars. She'd get a sweet note and a check for five dollars from someone and she'd pick up the phone and call them. She appreciates everybody."

In recent months, the future of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra has grown much brighter. The fact that it has a future to speak of is phenomenal. Weldon has been an integral catalyst toward every step forward. The $40 million Taylor Family Challenge was matched by the community six months ahead of schedule. The endowment is scheduled to reach $92 million by 2009. Weldon will be the first to tell you that there is still much to be done, many millions to be raised to secure the quality of the symphony, but there is also reason to acknowledge what has been achieved.

As significant as any of these achievements was the appointment of David Robertson, who takes up the position of Music Director in September 2005. Weldon took an active part in his selection. "She knew it was more important to watch conductors in rehearsal than in concert," says Halen. "Virginia came to some of our rehearsals and observed the interaction and rapport the musicians had with David and came away utterly convinced that he was by far the best choice."

At the press conference announcing Robertson's appointment in December 2003, Weldon said, "We decided to reach for the stars‹and we got our man."

This month one of the organization's brightest stars moves on. "A light has gone off in the building with her departure," says Leek.

"I'll never know how to thank her enough," says Oshiro. "I have the deepest respect and admiration for her. She showed the city. She showed the world."

Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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