From Our Family to Yours

By Tim Munro

SLSO perfoming for a sold-out audience at Powell Hall. Photo credit Dilip Vishwanat.
SLSO performing for a sold-out audience at Powell Hall. Photo credit Dilip Vishwanat.

Have you ever wondered how an orchestra chooses what music it plays?

I certainly have. So, keen to pull back the velvet curtain on this mysterious process, I sat down with Erik Finley, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Vice President, Artistic and Operations.

Finley, a boyish thirtysomething who speaks passionately about these orchestral nuts and bolts, is eager to point out that the SLSO’s 2018/2019 season is a sort of “in between time.” As in: before, there was Music Director David Robertson; after, there shall be Music Director Stéphane Denève.

“This season is a unique moment,” says Finley, who thought that the interregnum provided an opportunity for the institution as a whole to ask itself, “What is our artistic identity?”

Finley and his team turned the focus back on the heart of the SLSO, its players. President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard decided to survey members of orchestra, trying to get at their hopes and dreams and desires for the artistic focus of the organization.

Erik Finley
Erik Finley.

A clutch of questions was sent out, including: “What are works that you have not performed with the SLSO that you would like to?” “What is missing from our programming?” “What was a piece or a performance that the audience responded to well?” “What have been your most memorable performances with the SLSO?”

The selections musicians responded with were extremely helpful, says Finley, because they “came from a huge base of knowledge and institutional memory.” The results served as the artistic blueprint for the 18/19 season.

This season would be made for patrons by the whole SLSO family.

Survey answers were dotted all over the map. Several players fondly recalled performing and recording Samuel Barber’s First Symphony with former Music Director and current Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin. Finley asked Slatkin to bring this work back to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his debut with the
orchestra.

Other players suggested works that had receded into the mists of institutional memory. “Many requested Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony,” says Finley, which the SLSO has not performed in more than 20 years. “Bruckner was a strong part of this orchestra’s identity when Hans Vonk was Music Director.”

A crew of musicians requested Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. When mulling who might conduct this epic work, Finley noticed that Peter Oundjian was leading the Mahler in his final concerts as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony in June. In the fall of 2017, Finley learned from an SLSO player who had spoken to Oundjian that he hoped to conduct the work with the SLSO. Clearly, “this is the conductor to pair with this piece.”

SLSO players had general thoughts, too. There was consensus that the orchestra should tilt a little in the Germanic direction, with more Beethoven, more Haydn, more Mozart, a nudge reflected in a handful of programs during the season.

The players know their patrons better than any, bookmarking several crowd-pleasing jewels to be pulled off the shelf, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s evergreen Schéhérazade, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sixth Symphony, and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

Thinking of a conductor to match with the latter was easy, says Finley. The Berlioz “could be in no better hands than with a Frenchman. Our new Frenchman.” In other words, the SLSO’s Music Director Designate, Stéphane Denève.

According to Finley, Denève views 18/19 “as an ‘engagement’ season...before the marriage begins!” And, appropriately for an engagement, Denève’s first program
is packed to the rafters with love-soaked music by Berlioz, Wagner, and the American composer Peter Lieberson.

But it was the inclusion of Scriabin’s blissful Poem of Ecstasy that caught the eyes of several SLSO players. Bowled over by an experience playing the Scriabin under Denève with another orchestra, it was a SLSO musician that begged to play the work with the new maestro in St. Louis. 

Pointing at the second of Denève’s programs, Finley laughs, recalling the conductor suggesting program titles. One option was “Promenading in Nature Together.” “Very Stéphane,” says Finley.

Beth Guterman Chu rehearsing with the orchestra. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat.Beth Guterman Chu rehearsing with the orchestra. Photo credit Dilip Vishwanat.

At that concert’s heart is the music of Vaughan Williams, a great love of Denève’s but a composer he is not often asked to conduct.

After Finley had collected suggestions from players and from Denève, he went to guest conductors and said, “‘Our players suggested these pieces. Are there any of these works you would like to bring to the SLSO? Can this be the start of the program that we put together with you?’”

After several months of phone calls, meetings, and jigsaw-puzzling, Finley presented the new season to the SLSO players with the theme, “From Our Family to Yours.” “They were pleasantly surprised to see so many of their suggestions reflected in the season programming.”

One player expressed enthusiasm that there were so many concerts she was “not only excited to perform, but happy to invite friends and neighbors to attend.’”

Throughout the season, the SLSO is welcoming many musical families. First, “a family of conductors that represent the legacy and future of the SLSO.” Music Director Designate Denève directs four weeks of concerts; Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin leads two weeks; and Resident Conductor Gemma New leads two weeks.

Second, more SLSO musicians appear in the spotlight than in a typical season. One popular suggestion that surprised Finley was Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a rarely performed work featuring solo viola. When told of the programming choice, and of the fact that six musicians had requested the work, Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu “leaned back in her chair and said to her colleagues, ‘Thanks, guys.’”

Third, Finley says, the SLSO will welcome back our “extended family” of guest conductors and artists, those who have developed lasting relationships with the orchestra.

Joshua Bell. Photo credit Shervin Lainez.
Joshua Bell. Photo credit Shervin Lainez.

For example, violinists Leila Josefowicz and Joshua Bell both count this orchestra as crucial to their professional and artistic development, while guest conductors Jun Märkl and Nicholas McGegan “have appeared here more than any other guests over the past twenty years.”

Fourth, Finley has gathered artists from the same country or musical “family” in many programs. For example, Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu directs music of his compatriots, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Lotta Wennäkoski.

All right. Enough with the technical stuff. Time’s up. Finley and the whole SLSO family can now open their arms wide and welcome you, the most important part of this family. The SLSO patrons.


Tim Munro
is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A Grammy winning flutist, writer, and broadcaster, he lives in Chicago with his wife and badlybehaved orange cat.