The St. Louis Symphony returned to official rehearsals and concerts on March 3, 2005, after an eight-week work stoppage. But during our two-month hiatus from Powell Symphony Hall, our musical activities continued unabated. After the SLSO musicians rejected the management’s contract offer on January 3, we formed ourselves into various committees, knowing it might be some time till we returned to work. There was the negotiating committee, of course, as well as a media committee, a concert committee, and a thank-you committee. Except for the negotiating committee, which was elected by the musicians, all the committees were formed from among the musicians on a voluntary basis; whoever was able to give of their time and expertise did so.
One of the ideas behind the organization of concerts was simply to continue performing. We are all musicians, and playing concerts is what we do. But in addition, we wanted our music to remain part of the fabric of the city’s life. We didn’t want the public to forget the sound of a symphony orchestra. We wanted each of our performances to have value in its own right, to be creative and inspiring for the audience as well as for us on stage. These concerts reflected our feelings about music itself and had something of the joy we all felt as teenagers when we played for love and not for money.
Some of our concerts were benefits for other organizations. Our first performance was a benefit for the American Red Cross for tsunami relief. Another featured nine soloists from the SLSO and raised money for the Community Music School of Webster University, which had so generously donated rehearsal space, percussion instruments, music from its library, and a popular concert venue.
After the SLSO management cancelled a series of children’s concerts, an elementary school teacher, disappointed that her class would not be able to hear a symphony orchestra this year, wrote a letter mentioning the difficulties inherent in returning field trip money to a class of third graders. Violinist Dana Edson Myers from our concert committee called her and asked if she would like musicians to come to her school to play for the children. This led to our giving a children’s concert, again featuring orchestra soloists, in a large church across the street from the school, filling the sanctuary with primary school children. The field trip money was donated to an organization providing music for inner-city school children.Other performances raised thousands of dollars for our health insurance or were simply free concerts, given as gifts to the music lovers in our community. One Friday night, string quartets played in several downtown art galleries simultaneously, and people strolled from gallery to gallery, enjoying the art, both visual and musical. The Eroica Trio headlined another concert. Leaving babies, toddlers, and husbands in New York, they traveled to St. Louis and packed the house for an all-Beethoven concert with us, sandwiching the performance into their hectic tour schedule.
When the SLSO management postponed a concert celebrating Black History Month, we found that we could not duplicate the concert, as the music was only available in the SLSO library. Instead, we divided into small groups and played in multiple African-American churches on the last Sunday of Black History Month. The churches requested spirituals, so composers from within the orchestra worked long into the night arranging spirituals for our various chamber ensembles. That same Sunday, Garrison Keillor (from A Prairie Home Companion) flew to St. Louis at his own expense and created with us an evening of music, poetry readings, and commentary like nothing I have ever experienced. It was titled Music in the Air, after lyrics from the spiritual Over My Head, and was inspired by the spirituals we had played in the churches that very morning. With the audience overflowing into the aisles and entryways, the concert was two and a half hours long, and Mr. Keillor signed autographs and greeted the public for still another hour afterwards.
Arranging each of these events had its challenges, exacerbated by our having to organize at the last minute, as we were always hoping to go back to work. Each complete story of each concert could in itself be a Senza Sordino article.
Our very last concert, ironically, was one of the first that we began to organize after our paychecks and health insurance stopped in January. It was a combined orchestra concert, eventually including musicians from seventeen organizations. Early in the work stoppage, we had spoken with folks from the Philadelphia Orchestra. In terms of raising community awareness, money, and morale, they felt that the most important concert they presented during their 1996 strike was a joint concert with the New York Philharmonic. Thinking of doing something similar, we contacted members of the Chicago Symphony. They said they would like to help, but didn’t think 80–90 musicians would be able to make the five-hour drive to St. Louis and back on a day off. However, beginning in early January, we started talking about possible dates and conductors; there were concerns about traveling in winter weather, as well as having enough musicians willing and able to make the trip. Finally, a date was established for the afternoon of Sunday, March 13, and a dozen or so CSO musicians signed on. Then, little by little, we discovered that the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic were free the same day and that some of their musicians were available and eager to join us. The Kansas City Symphony was one of the first to get in touch with us, offering anything we needed. They had a concert the afternoon of March 13, but with a reduced orchestra, and three of the KCSO musicians wanted to play with us. As we contacted more and more orchestras and discovered them with a day off on March 13, it occurred to us that a more efficient way to do this would be to have our ICSOM representative, Chris Woehr, send out an all-points bulletin, inviting all ICSOM orchestras to participate if they could. More orchestras signed up, and soon a formidable group of musicians had cleared their schedules and made plans for a trip to St. Louis for our grand united solidarity concert at their own expense (or that of their orchestra committee).
And then, on February 26, two weeks before the Combined Orchestra Solidarity Concert, the SLSO musicians met with the negotiating committee. The committee had a contract offer they were not happy with, but felt they had to recommend to us. The vote would be taken by secret ballot through the U.S. mail system and would be counted on March 1, less than two weeks before the March 13 concert. The question then became, should we go ahead with the concert? A few out-of-town musicians had already made travel plans with airlines. We called musicians from the New York Philharmonic, and their committee said they would do whatever we wanted, that if we in St. Louis wanted to go ahead with the concert, they would be there for us. We polled other musicians who felt the same way, and so the concert was set in cement. Those ultimately joining us were from the Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Kalamazoo, Kansas City, and Nashville symphonies, the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras, the Florida, New York and St. Louis philharmonics, Music of the Baroque in Chicago, DePaul University, Indiana University, and the University of Missouri.
One of our biggest hurdles in all this was finding a conductor. There were several conductors whom we admired and longed to work with, but they were “unavailable,” either by happenstance or on purpose. We got the feeling that the conductors’ managers didn’t want them caught up in a labor dispute. As orchestra managements provide the bread and butter for the conductors’ managers as well as for the conductors themselves, it seemed they all thought it best to stay out of it.
Consequently, we were quite pleased when Benjamin Zander agreed to lead us, also coming at his own expense. Among his conditions were that no one else speak at the concert and that we musicians not use the concert as one last defiant clenched fist to the SLSO management. And so the Combined Orchestra Solidarity Concert became a thank-you gift to our St. Louis audience, a grand celebration of orchestral music itself, reminding me personally of why I went into music in the first place. Ben Zander spoke eloquently about the pieces: Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Tchaikovksy’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations as an encore. He chose a difficult, but do-able program for one 90-minute rehearsal, and we all felt happy and proud to be musicians and to be together on one stage.
Many aspects of the March 13 concert were serendipitous. We didn’t hold auditions, and we didn’t turn anyone away who was willing to come. (What we would have done if 30 trombones but only two violins wanted to play is now just a subject for speculation!) Each section arranged its own seating. In the cello section, there were seven SLSO members and six visitors. We decided that the most fun would be for each SLSO cellist to sit with an outsider. Our retiring SLSO principal cellist, John Sant’Ambrogio, sat principal for the concert. The remaining SLSO cellists drew lots for a stand, which they shared with a visitor. Friends sat with friends whenever possible. The final concert felt like a combination of an all-state orchestra, a class reunion, and the most magical music making possible. When the last notes of Nimrod had faded away, Ben Zander led us all into the audience to be with the public. Later we came together at a private home for food and conversation, catching up with old friends and making new ones.
There are no words to express our gratitude to all those who helped us during the work stoppage—from writers of letters to the local papers to those who donated tens of thousands of dollars, and from the many musicians and creative artists who became our collaborators to the folks who just thought of us and called to ask how we were doing.
We in St. Louis bless you all.
Catherine Lehr has been the assistant principal cellist of the Saint Louis Symphony since she joined the orchestra in 1975. She was a member of the concert committee that arranged the many performances described.