Sunday, November 16, 2008

No-hold poker culture of St. Louis Symphony

I was allowed to observe The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra this past week. They were rehearsing a program of modern compositions and were late in the game, so musical director David Robertson was cueing them into very specific problem passages and working out the kinks.

Mostly he was working out timing idiosyncracies - like I said, this was modern stuff, pretty whacked in form - or questions of timbre, instruments he wanted to hear ring out differently. Many of these sonic decisions he was making based upon the acoustics of the room - they were rehearsing at The Pageant, where the Symphony would take the stage for the first time as part of its Guitar Festival. He wanted to hear different kinds of attack from various instruments and sections, to compensate for the cramped stage space and how it squashed the sound of players situated closer to the walls than they are at Powell Symphony Hall.

I enjoyed the breaks almost as much as the rehearsal sessions. It was interesting to see what a room full of fabulously talented musicians did with fifteen or twenty minutes in a nightclub in the middle of the day. In addition to the things one would expect - make calls, eat snacks, relieve themselves, chatter - I was amused to see a pickup card game take shape around an audience chair that served as impromptu card table.

I noticed this rich tableaux too late to sketch it. The concertmaster called, "Five!" - five minutes until it was time to go back to work - and the card game was folded as fast as it had begun. To remember the incident, after they took the stage I sat close to a young violinist who seemed to have made out with most of the money and I sketched him.

He signed the sketch at the next break, with approval - "Pretty good!" he said of my drawing - and identified the card game they had been playing: low-stakes no-hold. "Quarters and dollars," he said. It was a vivid glimpse into the culture of the orchestra.

I was reminded of this incident tonight searching for information about concert pianist Orli Shaham, who is the featured artist at an upcoming SLSO program themed as Tricksters. I wasn't aware she did a radio show called "Dial-a-Musician" designed to answer the public's questions about classical music. I listened to one program tonight that answered the question, "Do orchestras have cultures?" (Yes, of course they do.)

Who did she call? None other than SLSO concertmaster David Halen. Orli has quite an "in" with her hometown orchestra here in St. Louis. After all, she is married to David Robertson and the mother of their new twins.

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