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Reflection: The tour ends, the glorious music plays on

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 8, 2012 - PARIS - As workweeks go for most of us, the one just over was a shorty -- just four days, a brief spell, a flicker on the cosmic timepiece. But for anyone touched one way or another by the far-away activities of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra these four days, time’s bell rang triumphant in our ears and bedazzled our minds’ eyes when its memories are summoned to be savored and shared.

The four days accommodated the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s European Festival tour. It began Tuesday night, Sept. 4, in London, and concluded last night, Friday, Sept. 7, in Paris at the glamorous Salle Pleyel in the VIII arrondissement.

It’s important to recognize that, while the actual music making occupied this abbreviated week, the tour lasted not just four days but spilled over into more than four years of planning and execution, and its life will be extended for many weeks to come as its merits are discussed and as these days are put through the wringer of evaluation.

Recovering

The orchestra has a long history of touring. There are run-outs to nearby towns, and trips to the West Coast and to New York, where our orchestra is a favorite. Asia and Europe were not foreign to the bands of the 1980s and 1990s. A big tour was conducted in 1998, but after that, Le Deluge, or something rather the opposite -- the money dried up.

There was talk of bankruptcy, and it was serious talk – not just a ploy to trick the public into a bailout. New management was hired and for the first time in a long time, with a former banker named Randy Adams at the CEO, and with Dr. Virginia Weldon in the board president’s office, hope was restored. Finally, finally everyone got it: You can’t spend money you don’t have. You can’t spend designated gifts. You must save. It was all like your household finances and mine, but on a larger scale.

The new management put things right and cleaned up some very nasty messes and raised a lot of money, a huge share of it from the Taylor family of St. Louis, which understood a great orchestra is not only a music-making operation but also a vital part of the infrastructure of any city that matters.

A charismatic young maestro called David Robertson brought radiance in his satchel seven years ago when he arrived to assume the podium in Powell Hall and the title of music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Robertson was -- and very much is -- is a regular on the European guest-conducting rails. He knew the St. Louis orchestra had made good impressions and loyal friends in Europe. Once ensconced at Powell Hall, the young musician (once described by an L.A, times blogger as “irrepressible, affable, unconventional, even wacky”) was itching to get his band up to Euro-speed artistically.

Recently, thanks to Monsanto and a group of anonymous donors, plus the reinstallation of sound financial operations in Powell Hall, the financial aspects of the maestro’s touring itch was relieved. And so a week ago today, everyone took off for London.

Touring

This tour was not organized by a big tour organizing outfit. Interestingly, wonderfully in fact, it was organized by Robertson himself, and by his manager, David V. Foster. Foster is president and CEO of Opus 3, an independent artists management firm with offices in New York and other cities.

Robertson introduced me to Foster early Friday morning at the Charles de Gaulle airport where he, Robertson and I were just in from Zurich and were collecting our baggage. Later, at the intermission of the Friday concert, he and I talked about the tour and its success, and how he and Robertson accomplished the intricate business of putting it all together, especially with the prestigious group of presenters St. Louis worked with and played for this year.

“We went to halls where people knew what St. Louis was doing,” Foster said. The possibility of a visit was discussed, and agreements were made and details hammered out. For a while, there were five possible performance venues. Eventually the four halls and festivals came into focus: the Albert Hall in London, the Philharmonie in Berlin, the KKL in Lucerne and the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Deals were made and plans put forth, and in January, the tour was announced. A couple of weeks ago a free preview concert was performed in Powell Hall, and the St. Louis audience was psyched.

Playing

The repertory was large enough for variation but contained – it basically was two and a half program’s worth of music, and apparently the moods and tastes of the audiences were considered. Lucerne, for example, was cerebral and enigmatic: Ives and Sibelius were on its program and none other. Last night in Paris, the overall impression was lighter and more familiar. Since “An American in Paris” was a standard in the tour repertory, it was the finale, and it brought down the house.

The show began with classics – Johannes Brahms’s “Tragic Overture” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin concerto. The young man who brought special intensity and extraordinary virtuosity to the week’s musical endeavor performed the latter with the orchestra. He is Christian Tetzlaff.

His was an exhibition of collegiality and generosity as well as high-octane virtuosity. The Beethoven concerto is constructed with dialogues with ensemble musicians. Tetzlaff took full advantage of this opportunity to engage with other players. But the most elaborate and eloquent, and most supremely satisfying was the back and forth with the kettledrums, played with an elegant musicianship by visiting artist Benjamin Herman.

Tetzlaff’s performances brought forth lavish waves of applause. And as if to say thanks or danke or merci, he played solo encores every night, various challenging selections from the vast songbook of J.S. Bach. Some of us who were on hand for every show played a Tetzlaff inspired game of Name That Tune. The identities of the first two pieces are in Beacon stories published earlier this week. The latter two are the Andante from the A-minor Sonata No. 2 (Thursday in Lucerne) and from last night, the largo from the Sonata No. 3 in C major.

In style

The Salle Pleyel is a sleek, neo-classical hall, reminiscent in spirit and in fact of the interior décor of the great passenger liners of the first half of the 20th century, paneled in a light wood with walls painted either white or a celadon green, void of decoration.

The hall’s history goes back to the 1830s, but it has undergone changes of ownership, rebuildings and renovations. The French piano maker commissioned the present hall in the Faubourg St. Honore, Pleyel et Cie, but a fire and heavy financial losses forced the company to sell. Fortunately, the name has been returned, and the hall has been maintained and continues to be one of the great concert halls of Europe, the sort of hall the St. Louis Symphony books into.

There is another connection to great art. If you know the work of the artist Henri Matisse, you’ll be familiar with Pleyel. One of its pianos is at the center of Matisse’s “The Piano Lesson,” a work of enigmatic challenges and great beauty.

Thus the second half of the program, in its relative modernity, was appropriate to the hall -- all 20th century fare. Elliott Carter’s loud and rambunctious “Holiday Overture” set the stage for more holiday music. That music was the entirely appropriated and much appreciated “An American in Paris,” by George Gershwin. It was played with especially sexy jazzy swagger on Friday evening. And Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to ‘Candide’” brought more smiles in encore.

All this may sounds familiar to readers, a variation on a theme called Tour 2012. Nevertheless, it is important to look back at the experiences of this week and to hold them close for nostalgic reasons (ain’t we got fun?!?) and certainly for artistic reasons and to remind ourselves of the supreme importance of this organization to the region.

With appreciation

The final official function of the tour was a reception given by the orchestra’s management in the Foyer of the Salle Pleyel. Unlike receptions I’ve attended on other tours, this one was modest: champagne and cookies and chocolate covered orange slices. But no matter: The promise of celebration was the thing, and the prospect of standing together to be acknowledged for their talent and hard work sent everyone rushing around changing out of formal concert clothing and flying to the basement to crate instruments to be picked up and moved quickly back to St. Louis.

David Robertson’s communicative skills are not reserved for music alone. He loves the spotlight and is a showman extraordinaire, but my guess is, part of that love is because conversations with others happen when a singular bright light illuminates him.

But in a one-on-one dialogue, when he makes you feel you’re the only person in the world, to entire music halls filled with listeners eager to be beneficiaries of his good humor and deep understanding of music and philosophy and history and his ability to put a subject into context, one can count on Robertson’s being interesting, and smart and funny and personal.

For example, German-speaking audiences in Berlin and Lucerne, on Wednesday and Thursday evenings respectively, and for his French audience on Friday, the address from the podium expressed how deeply he and the orchestra enjoyed sharing music with them.

At the reception at the Salle Pleyel, he bid gracious farewells to several musicians who were moving on, and thanked them for their services to the Symphony and to their art. He said thanks to Monsanto and the tour donors who made the trip a reality.

With pride

The most touching moment came when he looked around the room at the musicians his colleagues and fellow soldiers in service of art. “You have made us so proud,” he said.

And so they had.

But what is so obvious and moving is that the musicians have made all of us proud, all of us who call ourselves St. Louisans. We are proud of this organization, a resource that enriches our lives all the time, whether we ever find our way into the cream and red and gold interior of Powell Symphony Hall or not.

We have in our region a vast inventory of great architecture that mercifully survives. We have great universities, great potential for the future in biotech initiatives and innovative entrepreneurship. We have outstanding public and private arts collections, welcoming parks such as Forest Park and Citygarden. In the middle of one of these parks, which will receive a huge renovation, stands the world’s largest minimalist sculpture. We have the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

But we also are beneficiaries of a strong music-making tradition, brought to St. Louis first by the French, and then by the Germans, a tradition enriched by African Americans and immigrants who continue to come to town, bringing their own customs and, so important, their music.

Stirred all together, it is our heritage. So David Robertson was right. They – the orchestra – as made us proud. And their instrument, something all of us can be proud of as well, is this mysterious force and elevating medium we call simply, Music.

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