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New conductor seeks conversation with musicians and patrons

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 7, 2008 - It was a rainy afternoon in mid-September when I was introduced to Ward Stare, resident conductor of the SLSO and music director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. It was the first rehearsal for the Youth Orchestra, and I was working on a story featuring two young Kurdish musicians from Northern Iraq. They're studying English on scholarship at St. Louis University and will perform for Stare.

I was still dripping when Adam Crane, the symphony's director of communications, says, "It's Ward's first day. I don't know if you'll be able to film anything today." As I explained my "non-invasive" approach, Stare entered the backstage corridor, said "Hello!" and passed with a quickened pace. This couldn't be our official introduction. This was more of a subway encounter.

Crane brought the conductor over for a proper introduction and discussion. Stare was engaging and confident. Moreover, he was interested in the visual needs of my story. After I explained, he said, "Just don't break the sight line between me and the musicians." Deal!

Before long we were talking about New York, living in St. Louis and planning a sit-down interview.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Ward Stare found his classical roots in the music of Mozart. "I discovered Beethoven I think when I was like 5. Just sifting around records my parents had around the house, and I was totally hooked."

Influenced by his father, an amateur trombone player, Ward began his studies at age 9. Geographically close to the Eastman School of Music, his family had access to good teaching and the quality of the Rochester Philharmonic.

"I had the benefit of really good instruction on the trombone. I went to some music festivals and started meeting people outside of Rochester. I ended up getting into Julliard, which was fantastic! And so I was 100 percent committed to the trombone. But the conducting was sort of always in the back of my head."

After two years at Julliard, Stare was offered a 26-week performance contract with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He was 18 years old. "After the season, I didn't take any other work as a trombonist. I shifted my focus to conducting."

Stare studied harmony, counter point and conducting in Paris. The following year, he studied in Germany, Finland, Moscow and London. That led to the Aspen Music Festival and tutelage under renowned conductor David Zinman. "I was very fortunate." Stare earned the Robert J. Harth Conductor Prize, as well as the Aspen Conducting Prize. Soon after, conducting opportunities came his way.

"I sort of realized it was time for me to really make the break from the orchestra life, as hard as that was."

He performed as a guest musician with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic before retiring at the age of 25. "I am grateful of my years as an orchestral musician. I really understand that side of it. I think some conductors might lose perspective on that from time to time."

Now 26, Stare was selected by Maestro David Robertson for his dual role in St. Louis. 

It's autumn and concertgoers fill the streets leading to Powell Symphony Hall. "Peter and the Wolf" is the first program of the "Family Concert Series." Leading the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is Ward Stare. He enters stage right, welcomes the audience and turns to the orchestra.

From the balcony, the symphony sounds robust, crisp and responsive. "You have to give them an impulse," Stare said. "Then, you have to see what they do with it. You can't conduct in a one sided way, you're not lecturing when you're conducting. You're interacting. You're having a conversation."

After the performance, families engaged in a musical dialogue. It's clear; community outreach programs and education are imperative for art preservation. "Education is very important. We have to be more interactive in the way we educate. We do a lot of that at St. Louis Symphony. We go into schools. We have a lot of performances outside of Powell Hall that provide accessibility for people in the community and for students and that's something I am really interested in."

Christian Cudnik is an Emmy award winning producer based in St. Louis.

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