San Diego Could Take Some Lessons From Acclaimed St. Louis Symphony

There is no doubt about it: the St. Louis Symphony is a hot musical property. Under the leadership of music director Leonard Slatkin, the once-placid regional orchestra has given the traditional Big Five American symphonies a run for their well-endowed treasuries.

Five years ago, Time magazine music critic Michael Walsh ranked St. Louis as the nation’s No. 2 band, right behind venerable Sir Georg Solti’s Chicago Symphony. Since then, the St. Louis Symphony has been winning eyebrow-raising critical bouquets wherever it plays and has significantly increased its recording schedule.

The orchestra’s annual touring itinerary includes the major Eastern cities, sometimes hitting New York City twice a season with multiple concerts. It toured Europe in 1985 and the Far East in 1986. Tonight at Civic Theatre, the St. Louis Symphony will make its San Diego debut, inaugurating the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s International Orchestra Series.

Does the St. Louis success story have any lessons for San Diego? Comparisons between


the two cities and their respective orchestras yield some similarities and several significant differences. Statistically, metropolitan St. Louis, with its 2.4 million people, is only slightly larger than metropolitan San Diego’s 2.2 million population.

Although the St. Louis Symphony has garnered national acclaim only recently, it has been around for a long time. Founded in 1880, it is the country’s second-oldest symphony orchestra. In 1910, when San Diego musicians gathered at the Grant Hotel to play their first symphony concert, the St. Louis Symphony was already contracting its musicians for a regular 20-week season. While St. Louis made its Carnegie Hall debut in 1950, the San Diego Symphony’s Eastern forays have never extended beyond El Centro.

Like most American orchestras, St. Louis’ has grown over the past two decades. In 1973, the orchestra went to a 52-week annual contract, usually considered one of the primary building blocks of a first-rate orchestra. By contrast, the San Diego Symphony’s last season was based on a 32-week contract.

According to St. Louis Symphony Executive Director David Hyslop, the orchestra’s growth has not been without financial woes.


“We are not among the best endowed orchestras, and we’ve had deficits,” said Hyslop. “Seven out of the last 10 years have been difficult financially.”

He said that the St. Louis 1987-88 season budget was $14 million, and that the administration’s current campaign had brought the orchestra’s $21 million endowment to $26 million.

Last season’s budget for the San Diego Symphony was a paltry $5.5 million. Although next season’s San Diego budget will rise to $7 million, that still places it at less than half of St. Louis’ $14.5 million 1988-89 budget. The San Diego Symphony’s endowment is a meager $400,000, and the local orchestra is still $3.6 million in debt for the cost of renovating the Fox Theatre into Symphony Hall.

Slatkin pointed out that having a significant number of Fortune 500 firms in St. Louis made fund-raising for the orchestra easier. Among the St. Louis-based firms that formed a favorable base of corporate support were McDonnell Douglas, Anheuser Busch, Ralston Purina and Emerson Electric, Slatkin said.


If there is a significant difference between the communities served by the St. Louis Symphony and the San Diego Symphony, it is San Diego County’s lack of large, locally based corporations. While there are six St. Louis companies among the top 100 of the Fortune 500, not a single San Diego company is listed in the Fortune 500.

Not surprisingly, the St. Louis musicians are better paid than their San Diego counterparts. Over the last season, the base salary for a St. Louis Symphony player was $910 a week, or $47,220 a year, contrasted with San Diego’s $575 a week, or $18,400 for the season’s 32 weeks of work.

There is a significant way, however, in which San Diego is following in St. Louis’ footsteps. In 1968, St. Louis moved into a home of its own, Powell Hall, a restored movie palace in a less-than-trendy area of mid-town St. Louis. The orchestra had purchased the former St. Louis Theatre--a vaudeville and motion picture emporium--in 1966 for $500,000. Two years and $2-million worth of restoration later, the orchestra moved into its refurbished 2,600-seat home.

“Going into the Powell was a controversial move,” Hyslop said. “St. Louis is a very spread-out city, and it was difficult drawing audiences into the area. When we moved into the Powell, it was surrounded by boarded-up buildings, although since 1978 there has been some redevelopment around our hall.”


According to Hyslop, who has been with the orchestra 11 years, audiences in 1968 averaged 67-68% of capacity, but, by last season, attendance had risen to 83-85%.

The conversion of the old St. Louis Theatre into a modern symphony hall started a trend that spread to such cities as Pittsburgh, Vancouver and Atlanta. For about 10% of the cost of building a new hall, American orchestras discovered they could restore a vintage movie palace whose acoustics were usually better than the sonic disasters of New York’s Philharmonic Hall and San Francisco’s Davies Auditorium.

The San Diego Symphony moved into its new home, the restored Fox Theatre in downtown San Diego, in October, 1985, after a $6-million restoration.

For St. Louis, however, 1968 was a milestone year not only for its move into the Powell Theatre. That year saw the podium debut of a 22-year-old conductor who, 10 years later, was to assume the orchestra’s musical direction and lead the orchestra to glory. By 1971, Slatkin had been appointed associate conductor; he became music director in 1979.


“I had to go away for a few years to lead the New Orleans Philharmonic,” said Slatkin, “but that allowed me to return as music director.” According to many, it is Slatkin’s long-term relationship with St. Louis that has elevated it to its enviable position.

“Like a sports team, a symphony needs leadership,” Hyslop said. “While we have good players and a hall with good acoustics, a lot of the credit goes to Leonard Slatkin. When he conducts, the goose bumps come across the stage to the audience.”

Choosing an American conductor broke the mold in St. Louis, where Vladimir Golshmann, a Frenchman, had directed for more than 25 years in the mid-century, followed by Brazilian Eleazar de Carvalho and Czech-born Walter Susskind. Like most American cities, St. Louis had been sold on the instant cachet of a conductor with a foreign accent.

When Slatkin assumed the direction of the orchestra, symphony patrons knew they had a young American with a penchant for contemporary music, two strikes against the typical aspiring conductor. According to Hyslop, the St. Louis public got to know Slatkin while he paid his dues as Susskind’s assistant, and that knowledge made all the difference.


“Over the years, the people have come to trust me,” explained Slatkin. “I consider myself a music listener first of all, and I perform what I enjoy listening to. Then I take time to talk to the audience, even demonstrate parts of a new piece, and make it comfortable for them to hear it.”

In both 1984 and 1986, Slatkin and his orchestra were given the major orchestra award for commitment to contemporary music by the American Society of Composers and Publishers. Part of the orchestra’s commitment to new American music has been its high-profile, composer-in-residence program.

“Not only Slatkin, but the whole St. Louis management is extremely pro-composer,” said Joan Tower, who has just finished her three-year stint as St. Louis’ composer in residence. “With that kind of backing, Slatkin can follow his natural inclinations in selecting new music. It allows him to take risks.”

Although she characterized the St. Louis audiences as rather conservative and initially cool to her works, she had unbounded praise for the way Slatkin championed the works of living composers.


“I’m continually amazed,” said Tower, “how Slatkin travels the world and programs new music with the natural ease that he would schedule, say, Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. He puts himself on the line--he’s really alone in that category.”

Tuesday evening, San Diegans will hear Tower’s “Silver Ladders,” a large work she wrote for the St. Louis Symphony that will be released on a forthcoming compact disc devoted to her own compositions played by the St. Louis Symphony.

If Slatkin has been persuasive with audiences, getting them to appreciate a new piano concerto by Joseph Schwantner rather than hear for the hundredth time the Brahms Second, his stock is even higher with orchestra members.

“He has great respect for the musicians, and vice versa,” said Susan Slaughter, the orchestra’s principal trumpet since 1973. “He has a way of making criticisms in a positive way. He is approachable and will debate matters of interpretation--he’s not afraid to change his mind.”


“Slatkin never yells at the orchestra,” said principal cellist John Santambrogia. “I cannot even remember a time when he raised his voice. He is loved and respected by the musicians.”

Santambrogia did not hesitate to express his disagreement with Slatkin’s policy of playing a large amount of contemporary music, however.

“I respect what he’s trying to do, but I think we should do less new music. I don’t think it’s the sort of music that will bring in younger people, the orchestra’s new audience. But I would rather do new music with Slatkin than with any other conductor because of his skill in that arena.”

Slatkin’s high level of respect from his orchestra’s musicians contrasts greatly with that of Britisher David Atherton, San Diego’s last resident conductor and music director. Atherton resigned in February, 1987, during a yearlong labor dispute between orchestra members and the symphony board. In that dispute, Atherton’s treatment of the players and his negative personal attitude towards orchestra members had become, at least from the players’ point of view, one of the major issues in the yearlong dispute.


San Diego has been without a music director since Atherton’s departure, although the orchestra’s executive director, Wesley Brustad, has promised to announce a new music director by April, 1989. Symphony management has not tipped its hand in terms of its favored candidates, but thus far no American conductors have been among those rumored to be high in the running.

Israeli-born Yoav Talmi, who will be guest conducting four times in San Diego’s 1988-89 season, has been mentioned most frequently as the likely new music director. In the coming season, no young American conductors will appear on the San Diego Symphony podium.

In an interview with The Times at the end of the 1987-88 season, Brustad explained his overall three-year plan for the orchestra.

“I always said it would take three years to get (the orchestra) stable. This year was survival. Next year we will be limping through construction and other problems. The following year we’ll finally have someone in the saddle.”


The challenge facing the San Diego Symphony is to find for that saddle a music director with the musical gifts to do what Slatkin did for St. Louis when they moved into their freshly refurbished movie palace in 1968.