Smile Politely

Here comes the St. Louis Symphony

On September 14th, Champaign-Urbana’s Krannert Center will host the nation’s second oldest symphony orchestra for an evening of 19th and 20th century music. Led by David Robertson, the St. Louis Symphony is preceded in “seniority” only by the New York Philharmonic. Our local tradition with this fine ensemble has resulted in many an evening of great music and, come September, that tradition will no doubt continue.

Since its beginnings in 1880 as the St. Louis Choral Society, it has been a major anchor of the performing arts in the St. Louis and southern Illinois area. Among its distinguished music directors, Vladimir Golschmann, Rudolph Ganz, Walter Suskind, Jerzy Semkow and Leonard Slatkin have been stand-out names that have given this symphony a world-class distinction. During Leonard Slatkin’s music directorship (1979-1996), the symphony made many fine recordings and toured extensively to Europe, East Asia, Carnegie Hall, and our own Krannert Center. Before Slatkin’s tenure as music director, he established the St. Louis Youth Symphony in 1970, and the Symphony has pioneered in community outreach programs and has been the resident orchestra for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis since 1978.

Its recordings have gathered 56 Grammy nominations and six Grammy awards, and it has a supply of CDs and downloads on its own label, Arch Media. There have been close to 100 appearances by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on various recordings and downloads. Unfortunately, these artistic achievements and such stunning recordings as Andre Previn’s superb performance of Copland’s Red Pony Suite (still available on a Sony CD), did not provide the St. Louis Symphony with financial stability.

By 2000, the orchestra was facing severe financial difficulties and, in 2001, almost had to declare bankruptcy. Between 2001 and 2005, with a lot of help from St. Louis’ financial community, as well as extensive fund raising, budget cuts, and a renegotiated contract with the musicians’ union, the symphony appeared to be on the comeback trail. Then, in January 2005, an ugly labor dispute almost led to cancellation of the season as the musicians cried ”Lockout” and the management considered the situation to be an illegal strike. The courts decided in favor of management, tempers eventually cooled, and, in March of 2005, a new contract was signed and the season continued.

The season continued with a new music director, American David Robertson (pictured above and right). His new energy and quality as music director did much to salvage the 2005 season and set a course in the right direction for the future stability of the orchestra. By 2010, tickets sales were up, concert tours were a reality, and rebranding was happening in St. Louis. In 2010, the new designation of “St. Louis Symphony” replaced the more formal “St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.” In that same year, St. Louis Public Radio began broadcasting live the Saturday night concerts. Ratings rose for KFUO, and concert sales hit new highs.

Now, the newly rebranded and refurbished St. Louis Symphony returns to Krannert for an evening that includes Brahms’ First Piano concerto with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. Two twentieth century works will complete the program: Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Carl Nielsen’s Symphony #4.

What might we expect from the David Robertson version of the St. Louis Symphony on September 14th? Consider what The Los Angeles Times said of their 2010 concert: “Now when people speak about the handful of exciting American orchestras, St Louis is one of them.”

For further information go to or call the Krannert box office at 217-333-6282.

Orchestra photo credit: Scott Ferguson; Robertson photo credit: Michael Tammaro.

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