Each orchestra seems to have something uniquely its own, something recognized locally and especially nationally as a defining characteristic. The St. Louis Symphony’s signature, for many decades, has been contemporary music. At different points in its history, St. Louis has run with this reputation, touring and recording to show off its perceived strength. In the days of “Composers-in-Residence”, St. Louis always seemed to have a prominent one. They would come into town, shout comments from the balcony during rehearsals, give memorable and personal pre-concert talks, and take bows after their pieces. They sometimes worked very actively as advocates of new music, and of creativity within the orchestra in general. As national funding became scarcer, the Composer-in-Residence disappeared from St. Louis. But we still retained the reputation for New Music.
To those in the orchestra who couldn’t stand modern music, this has been a mixed blessing. There are veterans who remember our Carnegie Hall concerts chiefly by which programs they thought were the ugliest. That said, it’s generally acknowledged that this image of the orchestra has been successful in helping get us back to Carnegie annually, in getting our recordings on the shelves (where recording shelves still existed), and in keeping up our modern music chops. As new music directors come in, they each have a new favorite living composer to anchor the tours. Thus the orchestra keeps its reputation and road cred, and composers everywhere drown in gratitude or jealousy.
On January 16, the St. Louis Symphony performed, to standing room only, the St. Louis premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars…. In addition to the highly demanding score, the performance featured an evidently stunning visual component based on photography and video of US national parks, as created by visual artist Deborah O’Grady. I say evidently because I only heard the radio broadcast, since the concert was for a much-reduced orchestra and was sold out. It was also the only St. Louis performance, as the orchestra was preparing for a California tour in ten days, probably helping with the considerable buzz, crowd, and ovation. O’Grady is also the spouse of composer John Adams, whose work was featured on another program. And so we got to see them both several times through the challenging month.
The most creative aspect of this whole endeavor may have been the management’s booking skills. By splitting the orchestra, it was able to program the week before with Mahler 5 and the Adams Saxophone Concerto. Then came California, with a great time had by all; then the Mahler/Adams people returned to play a string program back in St. Loo, with the original Messiaen crew staying in California for Canyons and associated master classes. Although the tour schedule looked confusing to the eye (and easy to screw up), it actually made great sense both artistically and logistically. I applaud the St. Louis Symphony management for its worthy undertaking. The busy month increased our visibility, wasted no musicians, and presented terrific repertoire to appreciative audiences.
It is sometimes hard to remember that difficult repertoire, when programmed intelligently and strategically, can actually serve to place an orchestra on the map.