A native of St. Louis, Leon Burke III began music studies at age 12. By age 16 he was already conducting. Although he was also interested in science and math, he chose music as his field of study in college, earning a bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory and masters and doctorate degrees from the University of Kansas. He also studied as a Fulbright Fellow in Paraguay.
Now at the age of 61, Burke juggles more than a half-dozen music-related jobs including Music Director and Conductor of the University City Symphony Orchestra, Assistant Conductor and bass vocalist for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, Music Director of the Belleville Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, choir director at Eliot Unitarian Chapel, voice instructor at Saint Louis University and East Central Community College and is on the roster of cover conductors for the St. Louis Symphony. He also finds time to periodically return to Paraguay to conduct the Paraguay National Orchestra.
On Monday’s “St. Louis on the Air” Burke joined contributor Steve Potter to talk about his life in music and those who have influenced him along the way. They also took a look at the next concert in the University City Symphony Orchestra’s season titled “Black Art Matters.” It is called “The Seeds Continue to Flower,” and features the music of George Gershwin, James P. Johnson and Clovice Lewis, Jr.
Burke said he was inspired to do the series after the events in Ferguson and drew inspiration from his childhood as an African-American youth growing up in St. Louis.
“I remember, when I was enamored of the music of Shostakovich and Hindemith and Stravinsky and Bach and Beethoven and I would go out and buy the records, my father who was an avid jazz fan, we only had jazz records in the house, was kind of amazed,” said Burke. “He would say ‘Why are you interested in this? I raised you on the classics: Count Basie and Duke Ellington.’ But I think good music is good music. My interests led me to this classical music.”
Burke credits his rise to mentors in his life, like Dr. William Schatzkamer, who died in 2012, and Norman Goldberg, who died in 2011. He also says his aunt, who was the first black woman to receive a doctorate from Saint Louis University, was a big role model.
“I was raised to be colorblind,” Burke said. “As long as you worked hard, there was nothing you could not achieve.”
Burke was going to summer school at the Mark Twain Summer Institute when he met Dr. Schatzkamer. He got his first conducting lessons there, when Schatzkamer had him conduct the “Star Spangled Banner.”
“He said the things you should never tell to an eager adolescent: you know, you have a flair for that,” Burke said.
It was fitting that Burke would succeed Schatkamer as conductor of the symphony he founded: the University City Symphony Orchestra, which Burke conducts to this day.
Listen to Burke describe his typical week-long schedule (hint: he fits a lot in there!), how he utilizes many different skill-sets in his conducting, and more:
What: University City Symphony Orchestra Concert: "The Seeds Continue to Flower"
When: Sunday, March 6, 2016, 3:00 p.m.
Where: John Burroughs School, 755 S. Price Rd., St. Louis, MO 63124
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.