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Take Five: Barrister with a baton has annual date with the Symphony

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2011 - Many of us have Walter Mitty-esque fantasies, but Larry Katzenstein doesn't just dream about another life: he lives it. For 365 days a year, Katzenstein is an attorney. But for one day only, he also conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The lawyer-turned-maestro first conducted the Symphony's Youth Orchestra more than two decades ago in an arrangement in which he made a financial contribution for the opportunity. On Dec. 6, the Thompson Coburn partner will conduct the full orchestra for the 19th time in a free concert featuring "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Dukas and "La Mer" by Debussy.

Katzenstein is among a select trio of amateurs to ever conduct the St. Louis Symphony. Mahler enthusiast Gilbert Kaplan did so only once, in 1991. And during the 1970s through 1990s, late composer and symphony benefactor Katherine "Katch" Gladney Wells conducted on numerous occasions.

Declining to reveal the amount of his donation, Katzenstein did put a value on the feeling he gets from this once-a-year experience: Priceless.

Katzenstein, who has played piano since childhood but has no formal conducting instruction, talked with the Beacon about his relationship with the Symphony and the importance of asking for what you want. (Note: Katzenstein is on the Beacon's Board of Directors.)

What's your musical background?

Katzenstein: I've studied piano since I was a small child and I've studied music all my life. I've always read orchestral scores very fluently and I've been collecting and reading them probably since I was a teenager.

How did your relationship with the Symphony begin?

Katzenstein: About 25 years ago, I had a good friend, Kirk Muspratt, who conducted the Youth Orchestra, and I told him I'd like really like to learn something about conducting. So he gave me a lot of coaching. I asked him if I could make a contribution to the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and have some rehearsal time.

The very first time was Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." I conducted the Youth Orchestra a few times; then I asked more friends at the St. Louis Symphony -- and I had a lot of friends there in the orchestra and in management -- could I make a contribution to have 20 minutes of rehearsal time to conduct a professional orchestra at a rehearsal? I did that about three times.

[Former St. Louis Symphony music director] Leonard Slatkin sat and watched me and gave me suggestions on what to do. Then I asked if I could do it for an audience for an increased contribution and they said yes.

After all these years, is it still somewhat daunting but also exciting?

Katzenstein: I'm always so excited but I'm probably not as nervous as the orchestra -- they know I'm not a professional. Also, I pick pieces that need a conductor, that they could not play themselves.

One thing I like about doing this is that a lot of people come who've never been to the symphony before. They're clients of Thompson Coburn, or they're friends of ours, or they live in our neighborhood or they're board members of other organizations I'm active with. There are some in my office who had never been to the symphony and they bought season tickets.

How much do you practice beforehand?

Katzenstein: I get one run-through, and I do what I can with the little bit of time I have. It's enough time to fix a few problems if there are any. But I've studied these pieces for a long time; I'm very well-prepared.

Will you continue to conduct indefinitely?

Katzenstein: They haven't said no yet; I'll put it that way. I'll do it as long as they let me; it's the highlight of my year.

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