By Eric Dundon
In a career filled with many milestones, one moment holds a particularly special place in the heart of Leonard Slatkin, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Conductor Laureate.
It was 1970 and after a year of dedication and work, the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra had gathered for its first rehearsal. The inaugural class of YO musicians tuned, listened to introductory remarks, and began playing Leopold Stokowski’s orchestrations of J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
“I can’t tell you exactly what it sounded like because no matter what it was, it was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard,” Slatkin remembered in an interview recently from his home in St. Louis. “It was literally creating something that didn’t exist before.”
More than 600 students auditioned for the first iteration of the YO, a rigorous audition procedure that took five weeks and many hours of effort from Slatkin and the first YO manager, Edith Hoagland.
Since that first rehearsal, the YO has far exceeded Slatkin’s expectations. The ensemble has gone on tour, launched many careers in the orchestra industry, and produced memorable performances of professional-level repertoire time and time again. While Slatkin enjoyed a 17-year tenure as SLSO Music Director, he points back to that first rehearsal as a standout moment.
In the spirit of that first rehearsal, Slaktin composed Bachanalia for the YO—a testament to that first rehearsal in 1970 and to the 52 years of success the orchestra has seen since. The YO will give the world premiere of the piece—conducted by Slatkin himself—at its May 29, 2022, concert at Powell Hall. Tickets are free ($10 for balcony-level seating) and can be reserved at slso.org.
A respected conductor, Slatkin is also a prolific composer, writing music about his own interests that have been performed by orchestras around the world. But composing Bachanalia was a first for Slatkin.
“I think this is the very first piece that I’ve been asked to write,” he said.
Originally slated to receive its world premiere during the YO’s 50th anniversary season in 2020, the piece is dedicated to YO musicians past, present, and future.
Slatkin used the opening eight bars of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor to open the piece. As the music builds, each section of the orchestra begins to play other Bach pieces that generally fit harmonically with the passacaglia (a repeated bass line). At the climax, the piece turns into “a mash-up of sonic mayhem,” according to Slatkin’s program note. As it fades into the conclusion, some musicians invoke the original composer’s name by performing the B-A-C-H motif: B-flat, A-natural, C-natural, B-natural (‘H’ in German notation).
Slatkin hopes the commission of Bachanalia will shine a spotlight on the vitality of the YO.
“Now that the Youth Orchestra in St. Louis far outlived my own tenure there and not only continues to thrive but has well exceeded our expectations when we started—for me, in many ways, this is my proudest accomplishment,” he said. “Music is, as are all the arts, critically important to a vital society and you can’t underestimate its value until it’s gone.”
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.