It's hard to not feel a little special upon entering Powell Symphony Hall. Walking across the Grand Foyer to the bar you can hear your heels clicking on the white marble floor. Glass of wine in hand you find a quiet corner in which to sip and observe the diversity of symphony patrons during the pre-concert cocktail hour. The ushers walk through chiming bells to warn that the concert will soon be starting, giving patrons time to find their seats. You deposit your empty glass on the bar and climb the sweeping, red-carpeted staircase to the balcony. Entering the auditorium the cream and gold walls and scarlet velveted handrails and seats create an atmosphere of elegance. As you take your seat the house lights dim and the music begins...
For more than 120 years the St Louis Symphony Orchestra has been entertaining audiences in St Louis, Missouri, and around the world with classical and contemporary arrangements. Second oldest in the United States1, the Symphony now resides in the St Louis Theatre District at Powell Symphony Hall.
Powell Symphony Hall
The St Louis Theatre at 718 North Grand Boulevard opened in 1925 and operated as a vaudeville venue and a movie house. In 1966 the St Louis Symphony Society acquired it for the purpose of providing a home to the Symphony Orchestra.
A two-year renovation was undertaken to refurbish the interior and update the lighting and acoustics. Architect Ben Schlanger, who had just completed work on New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, was consulted for engineering assistance. With Mr Schlanger’s help Dr Cyril Harris was also consulted, a world-renowned acoustician whose past work included the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.
The theatre reopened on 24 January, 1968, as Powell Symphony Hall garnering much praise from performers and patrons. Favourable comparisons were made to New York’s Carnegie Hall and Boston’s Symphony Hall. Powell was named in honour of Walter S Powell whose wife Helen Lamb Powell was a benefactor to the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. Powell Hall is the first permanent home the symphony has ever had.
In its history spanning a dozen decades, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra has been led by 11 different music directors.
Joseph Otten of Holland founded the St Louis Choral Society in 1880. During his tenure, which lasted until 1894, he built the group to a chorus of 80 members and an orchestra of 31. Germany’s Alfred Ernst led the orchestra from 1894 to 1907, expanding the chorus to almost 200 members and the orchestra to 55. At the 1904 World's Fair guest conductors were introduced for the first time. American Max Zach saw the St Louis Choral Society renamed the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. Under his leadership from 1907 to 1921 world renowned guest soloists were introduced, and the concert season was expanded to include more programmes. In 1921 Rudolph Ganz from Zurich joined the orchestra. The audience disliked his contemporary programme style and began a petition for his removal. Before the petition could be served the Symphony Board asked him to step down in 1927.
Following four years of guest conductors, French-born Vladimir Golschmann began his 27-year tenure in 1931. Bringing in some of the best soloists of the day, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra entered the upper tier of American orchestras before his departure in 1958. Edouard van Remoortel of Belgium became the symphony’s next musical director in 1958. He left four short years later due to conflicts with the orchestra. Under the leadership of Brazilian Eleazan de Carvalho from 1963 to 1968 the orchestra became one of the foremost ensembles performing new works. His unorthodox programming was an attempt to educate the audience on the history and significance of the works performed.
Maintaining one of the best relationships with both orchestra and audience was American Walter Susskind. During his time with the symphony from 1968 to 1975 he added summer festivals to the schedule, appearing both locally and around the nation. In 1975 Jerzy Semkow began his brief career with the symphony. He added a summer 'Pops' series and founded the St Louis Symphony Chorus. Under his appointee Thomas Peck the chorus became the premier orchestral choral ensemble in the United States. Ultimately Maestro Semkow was unhappy in America, and returned to his native Poland in 1979. The second-longest tenure with the orchestra is held by American-born Leonard Slatkin2. Between 1979 and 1996 he was the most internationally accomplished conductor to date, and before stepping down founded the St Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. He retains the title of Conductor Laureate.
Holland's Hans Vonk took the reins in 1996, and simultaneously held the position of principal guest conductor with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in addition to making other guest appearances with prestigious orchestras worldwide. Maestro Vonk stepped down at the end of the 2002 season, his replacement had not been named at the time of this writing.
More Than Just Music
In addition to a comprehensive regular season of classical and contemporary orchestral performances, the symphony and its members participate in many events and concerts at local parks and other venues. The Community Partnerships Programme was formed in 1994 to organise outreach programmes and activities with local schools and organisations.
The In Unison programme was founded in 1992 with five St Louis African-American churches. Today more than 25 African-American churches participate, giving performances for worship services and other concerts. Organised in 1994, the E Desmond Lee Music Education Collaborative is a partnership with the University of Missouri at St Louis, the Opera Theatre of St Louis, the St Louis Art Museum, Young Audiences of St Louis and Jazz at the Bistro to enhance music education at more than 60 partner schools. Members of the orchestra have also operated the St Louis Symphony Community Music School since 1994, providing musical instruction to local students. These programmes are largely funded through corporate and private donations and grants.
Over the years the St Louis Symphony Orchestra has become a world class ensemble. Their recorded works have garnered more than 50 Grammy Award nominations winning the award six times. They frequently tour America, including an annual appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Occasionally they tour internationally, having been to Europe in 1985, 1993 and 1998, and the Far East in 1986, 1990 and 1995.
The symphony’s season schedule is usually announced in the Spring for the following season. Season subscriptions are available through the summer and the season runs from September through May. Tickets are also available on an individual performance basis. Further information can be obtained from their web site at www.slso.org.