Beyond Performance

How the SLSO’s Community Programs Touch Lives in St. Louis

By Maureen Byrne and Benjamin Pesetsky

Salesevic performing a welcome concert for new Americans at the International Institute of St. Louis with the Strings of Arda of the SLSOSalesevic performing a welcome concert for new Americans at the International Institute of St. Louis with the Strings of Arda of the SLSO

Musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra have a long tradition of using their talents to touch people’s lives in many different settings: perhaps a casual chamber concert, an intimate performance designed to mentally transport patients from a hospital environment, or a mentoring experience to inspire the next generation. For some, the impact lasts the length of an event. For others, encounters with musicians through the SLSO’s community and education programs can be long term, empowering, and even life-changing.

As a teen growing up in Croatia and Bosnia, Amir Salesevic planned to continue his accordion studies at a conservatory in Europe. When war broke out in the Balkans, his family was forced to flee Bosnia, landing first in Germany and eventually in the United States as refugees. “During the many years of moving from one place to another, I lost interest in music and the accordion,” Salesevic said. His plans for a career in music were shelved as he made his new life in St. Louis.

In 2013, SLSO’s Music Without Boundaries partnered with the Bosnia Memory Project at Fontbonne University to tell the stories of Bosnians in St. Louis through Balkan music. Salesevic and his wife Elma were advisors on the project. When SLSO violist Chris Woehr, the lead SLSO musician for Bosnian Journeys, learned that Salesevic was also a musician, he invited him to join in the live performance. “This was something I never dreamed of,” Salesevic said. “I started preparing for the concert, and found what I had been looking for, what was really missing from my life—it was the sound of the accordion.”

The effects of this exchange went both ways. “It was such a privilege for us to play with Amir, who of course has a special and deep connection with the music of his homeland,” said Woehr. “The music of Bosnia and other countries has had a profound influence on my compositional life, entering my own compositions in rhythm, texture, and tonal structure. The gift of music is universal.”

Salesevic has not stopped playing since. He performs regularly around St. Louis, has opened an accordion repair business, and works with an Italian accordion maker to import customized accordions for distribution in the United States and Canada. He recently left his 15-year career as a cardiology assistant to devote himself to his music and businesses, and now plans to open an accordion museum in St. Louis.

Ra’Geen Washington began college studies at University of Missouri-St. Louis as a violin performance major in 2011 and was invited to apply to become an SLSO IN UNISON scholar. In addition to an annual stipend toward her tuition, her status as a scholar provided access to mentorship from SLSO staff and performance opportunities with SLSO musicians.

Washington performing at Powell Hall
Washington performing at Powell Hall (photo credit: Sara Levin)

As Washington progressed through her college career, strengths beyond her violin skills became apparent. She was tapped for an arts administration fellowship to help run the IN UNISON partner church program. Upon graduation from UMSL, she was offered a role with the SLSO education team to serve as liaison with an elementary school in Ferguson where she developed a passion for sharing string instruments.

“Working with the SLSO changed my life and I am a better musician, teacher, and leader because of this,” Washington said. “Collaborating so closely from behind the scenes, as well as having opportunities to be on stage with such wonderful talents, helped me to see the possibilities in my own life. I gained a passion for creating new ways to teach others about music and looked to find purpose in every performance.” In 2016, Washington was named Director of Elementary Orchestras for the Normandy Schools Collaborative, a position that allows her to touch hundreds of lives with music.

Washington was among the first IN UNISON scholars to benefit from an enhanced mentorship program created by SLSO IN UNISON Artist in Residence Brian Owens five years ago. Cassandra Bell, Kaylen Lucas, and Terrence Abernathy are among the newest.

Bell and Lucas played clarinet in the Riverview Gardens High School band program directed by Harvey Lockhart. The SLSO’s associate principal clarinetist, Diana Haskell, volunteered with Lockhart’s program, teaching and mentoring the young women.

Bell and Lucas in a 2017 masterclass led by SLSO’s Diana Haskell
Bell and Lucas in a 2017 master class led by SLSO's Diana Haskell

“My first lesson with Ms. Haskell was a little scary,” Bell said. “At the time, I didn’t know my potential or what I could do to progress and move forward. She really helped me become more confident as a player, and let me know it was okay to make mistakes, to mess up, and that being discouraged sometimes is normal.” Bell and Lucas, both seniors at the time, expressed interest in attending college to study music, and Haskell connected them with Owens. He encouraged them to apply for the IN UNISON scholarship program at UMSL, and both women were accepted. They began their college studies in August, joining a culture of mentorship led by Owens along with IN UNISON scholar program upperclassmen, graduates, and SLSO staff and musicians. The mentorship will follow Bell and Lucas through their college years and beyond, and eventually, they will become mentors to students who come after.

Music Director David Robertson with Abernathy
Music Director David Robertson with Abernathy (photo credit: Maureen Byrne)

Former SLSO IN UNISON scholar and St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra alumnus Terrence Abernathy has already completed his undergraduate degree in horn performance from McKendree University. After hearing the SLSO for the first time as a college student, Abernathy set his long-term sights on becoming an orchestral conductor, and took an usher position at Powell Hall to stay close to the music. As part of the enhanced IN UNISON mentorship program, he was offered a special IN UNISON graduate fellowship in 2017 which provides him the opportunity to observe SLSO rehearsals, and learn from Music Director David Robertson, Resident Conductor Gemma New, and visiting guest conductors, in hopes of preparing him for his next step in this competitive field. “When I tell people I don’t just work here, and I explain the fellowship, they say ‘that’s incredible,’” Abernathy said. “It’s hard not to be overwhelmed. The conductors and musicians know my name, they know who I am and what I want to do. And I am deeply appreciative of that.”

SLSO IN UNISON is supported by the