Something Special In St. Louis Part 1

On Sunday, March 13, 2005 the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with colleagues from 14 orchestras* joined together to present a free concert to the greater St. Louis community.  In all, there were 109 musicians led by Maestro Benjamin Zander in a performance of works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Elgar**.

The musicians gathered for a single, two hour rehearsal and then performed to an overflow audience at the Manchester United Methodist church.  Anxious to get good seats for this historic live event, the 1300+ who attended started to arrive in sizeable numbers 90 minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin at 4:00PM.

I don’t enjoy using flowery language and lofty words to describe concert events, but this unique performance qualifies for a special exemption.  After leaving this concert, I was filled with tremendous sense of purpose and inspiration.  I haven’t felt this hopeful about the future of classical music in a very long time.

Everyone fortunate enough to attend participated in a unique event that transcended a typical high quality live concert event.  They were able to share in that singular, inextricable experience which drives most musicians to perform. It’s a spiritual, emotional, and professional high which only appears on the rarest of occasions. This concert may very well go down in musical history as a sincerely unique benchmark experience.

You can begin to see how this happened when you look at how the pieces were selected.  I had the opportunity to talk to Maestro Zander before the performance and asked him why he preferred to conduct these pieces. When referring to the Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, he said,

“Beethoven is an ideal selection because he represents the ultimate struggle of life.  He was deaf, cut off from humanity, and had few personal relationships so he poured everything into his music.  So he taught us that however difficult the struggles and however relenting the opposition we can always move through to triumph.”

It would be easy to say that Maestro Zander was referring to the recent labor strife the SLSO has experienced since January but I didn’t get the impression that was what he was talking about.

The struggle can represent the difficulty classical music endures on every level; internally and externally.  Furthermore, his statements weren’t about assigning blame or responsibility for recent problems, it was about the trials this art form endures in order to survive and what we all need to do to become a sort of healer.

Toward the end of the concert, Maestro Zander mentioned a few words about the healing power of music; how it transcends time, beliefs, and even the deepest of wounds.  It softens a cold man’s heart and can bring together those who struggle against one another.  It defies a fundamental law of nature and creates something which exceeds the sum of its parts.

The concert contained a spiritual essence; the fact that the concert was performed in a church wasn’t lost on my perception of events.  Hanging over the orchestra was a large cross and the combination of noticing that religious image while listening to the glorious music brought a quote to my mind from one of history’s most famous rebels,

I have no pleasure in any man who despises music. It is no invention of ours: it is a gift of God. I place it next to theology. Satan hates music: he knows how it drives the evil spirit out of us. – Martin Luther

Music isn’t about spreadsheets and budgets any more than it’s about base pay or benefits.  Music is what connects people together in a way that can only be described as pure goodness; the connection is simultaneously timeless and priceless.

Maestro Zander concluded the evening’s concert by saying,

“There is not one person in this room who should leave with a single doubt as to why this symphony should exist. If everyone in this room told ten others about what they experienced here this evening, then there would be no problems.”

He’s absolutely right.

Music isn’t concrete; it’s gone the moment after the sound waves dissipate.  All that’s left is what it created inside each one of us. Without others to share and build this connection, the evil Luther referred to can grow to consume us all.

Tomorrow’s article will share some more insight from Benjamin Zander in addition to a great deal of reactions from the musicians who perform in the SLSO and those who traveled from near and far to selflessly contribute their time and talent in order to make this extraordinary event the success that it was.


*Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Chicago symphony Orchestra
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Louisville Orchestra
Nashville Symphony Orchestra
New York Philharmonic
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Cleveland Orchestra
Houston Symphony
Kansas City Symphony
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Philadelphia Orchestra
Florida Philharmonic Orchestra

**Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Tchaikovsky Romeo & Juliet, Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, Elgar Enigma Variations, Nimrod.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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