By Eric Dundon
Denim Browder eats, sleeps, and breathes music. As a fourth grader at Shaw Visual and Performing Arts Elementary in St. Louis, he picked up the French horn and began band classes with teacher Carolyn Kramkowski.
Denim’s musical fervor gained momentum when he saw a concert for the first time in Powell Hall last fall—the orchestra’s special community concert, EXTRA CREDIT On Stage. In that biennial event, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians share the stage with area music educators, including Kramkowski.
Denim’s mother, Jackeya Smith, said that after that concert, Denim decided to become a conductor.
“Every day, he would come home and practice and watch YouTube videos of conductors,” she said.
But something was missing. Denim had never met a conductor in person. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the April 2020 concert he was supposed to see with then–Resident Conductor Gemma New on the podium.
With Denim’s school held virtually this fall, band class changed. Denim could no longer be in a room with other music makers. But that didn’t deter him from following his passion. He continues to study using video, immersing himself in a digital musical world. And on the platform his school uses for virtual instruction, Denim doesn’t use a photo of himself—he uses a photo of SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève.
When in-person concerts resumed at Powell Hall in October, the opportunity Denim had waited for finally arrived.
Denim and his mother, grandmother, and teacher were invited to attend the October 22 concert, sitting in Stéphane Seats. The initiative, started during Stéphane’s first season as Music Director, offers free tickets to members of the community to attend a concert at Powell Hall, hosted by Stéphane himself. Denim and his family watched SLSO musicians perform works by Richard Strauss, Takashi Yoshimatsu, and Dvořák. Denim was totally engrossed in the performance, in awe of the musicians and of Stéphane on the podium. Though the experience differed from the EXTRA CREDIT On Stage performance he saw last year (there were 40 musicians on stage compared to more than 100 for EXTRA CREDIT), Denim left feeling a sense of wonder.
He later wrote a review of this special concert:
“I realized that it doesn’t matter how small the orchestra is, as long as everyone works together as a team.”
Denim’s mother described the special evening at Powell Hall: “It honestly brought tears to me and my mother’s eyes to witness one of Denim’s dreams come true, something that he thought would never happen,” she said.
After the concert, Denim received another treat. Stéphane visited the group, taking photos with Denim and demonstrating a bit of technique for the budding conductor, who brought his own baton he received as a Christmas gift last year.
“I can’t wait to grow up and be a conductor just like Stéphane,” Denim said afterwards.
So far, Stéphane has hosted more than 250 people in Stéphane Seats at Powell Hall, ranging from music educators to youth musicians and international students.
Maureen Byrne, SLSO Associate Vice President of Education and Community Partnerships, said Stéphane Seats have been a successful way to further connect the community with the SLSO.
“It’s a joy for Stéphane and all of us on staff and in the orchestra to welcome kids and adults alike to experience the power of the SLSO in a live performance. Through Stéphane Seats, we can share the power of music with community members and some of our newest fans like Denim. It’s a way to say welcome and thank you, and an opportunity to make personal, one-one-one connections,” she said.
For Kramkowski, Denim’s teacher, attending an SLSO concert in Stéphane Seats will act as kindling to a child’s burgeoning passion for music.
“It was an amazing night. Denim's face was just glowing,” she said. “It was so sweet that at the end of the performance as the musicians were walking by, they waved to him. I don’t know where the future will take him, but he is very motivated now.”
Eric Dundon is the SLSO's Public Relations Manager.