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Symphony players and music have a story to tell

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2012 - Much like the namesake of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s folk-inspired composition, “The Firebird,” the St. Louis Symphony’s performance has a story behind it.

And much like The Firebird itself, that story is a bit of a dance, involving two distinct entities with mutual admiration for each other’s gifts.

The symphony’s story begins nearly 30 years ago in Aspen, Colo., and involves two of its performers: Roger Kaza and Patti Wolfe. He is the symphony’s principal horn, holder of the W.L. Hadley and Phoebe P. Griffin Chair; she is a classical pianist and teacher.

Although they were both living in St. Louis at the time, Wolfe and Kaza met at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado in 1984.

“I was studying piano at the festival, and Roger was studying conducting,” Wolfe said.

At the time, Wolfe was attending the St. Louis Conservatory and Kaza had just started as a member of the symphony. They returned to St. Louis and began dating.

But their time together in the same city would not be long because Wolfe transferred to Julliard where she completed her bachelor’s degree. And rather than moving home, she then moved to Connecticut.

“I got my master’s degree at Yale,” she said. “Then we got married.”

Throughout her time away from Roger and St. Louis, Wolfe said she and Kaza continued the relationship, bridging the distances of time and terrain. Their journey has taken them to Houston, Texas, where Kaza was on faculty at Rice University and played with the Houston Symphony, and back to St. Louis.

Now, nearly 30 years later, they traverse a different sort of landscape, one laden with children and careers, rehearsals and recitals as well as both Powell and Carnegie halls. Both will be on stage this weekend and in New York, an opportunity Wolfe clearly relishes.

Still she makes no pretense that she and her husband have a simple arrangement (no pun intended), but she does acknowledge that playing with the symphony is different from working on a recital with her husband, especially in the preparation part of the performance.

When the two are preparing for a recital, they practice whenever they can fit it in, she observed.


Claude Debussy “Printemps”
Kaija Saariaho “Quatre Instants”
Igor Stravinsky “The Firebird” (complete)

“We choose the music,” she added. “We choose everything, which has its benefits and issues. If we decide to rehearse before bed, we can.”

Working with the symphony may not allow such flexibility or control, Wolfe observed, but it does provide thrilling opportunities and unparalleled collaborative experiences.

“It is amazing playing with the symphony,” she said. “It is so great to work with all of these musicians and a conductor — to be in the middle of it all is just incredible.”

And she values working with Conductor David Robertson.

“He just so amazes me — his knowledge about what we’re working on,” she said. “He’s always so clear, and he always has great stories about the music.”

In the case of the music, it is the ballet inspired by Russian fables. Stravinsky created The Firebird — his first major composition — in 1910.

At the time, all of Paris was agog over the famed Ballet Russes. And though he was not yet 30, relatively unknown and still under the guidance of his mentor Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky was commissioned by the troupe to compose what is now one of his most iconic works, according to Scottish composer Paul Rissmann.

The Firebird has been described as the greatest piece that Rimsky-Korsakov never wrote,” Rissmann wrote, “because it clearly defines the moment when his young and relatively inexperienced composition student, Igor Stravinsky, overtook his teacher — by creating one of the most significant ballet scores of the 20th century.”

Even at the time, Paris and the world embraced Stravinsky and his new work.

“Mark him well,” Ballet Russes Founder Sergei Diaghilev allegedly told his lead dancer. “He is a man on the eve of celebrity.”

And so he was.

The symphony’s performance of “The Firebird” will feature two pianos, with Wolfe at one, and Kaza leading the vast horn section that will include the Wagner tuba.

Along with “The Firebird,” the symphony will perform Debussy’s “Printemps,”and Kaija Saariaho’s “Quatre Instants,” featuring soprano Karita Mattila. The March 3 evening performance will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7-KWMU. This is the same concert that will be performed in New York.

This year, Carnegie Hall chose the St. Louis Symphony to be the first in its The American Orchestra series. The March 10 performance will be at 8 p.m., EST on the Perelman Stage in the Stern Auditorium of New York City’s most famous classical venue, arguable one of the most noted in the world. Videos, blogs, in-depth interviews and photos showing how the Symphony prepares for and plays at Carnegie are all part of the online experience which can be viewed at http://www.carnegiehall.org/Blog.

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