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Flexible Hope: Jelena Dirks

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

By Tim Munro

“I miss the people,” says SLSO Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks. “I miss my friends—seeing them, making music with them. I miss the space of Powell Hall. I miss the audience."

She recently came across aquotefrom the British interior designer William Morris: “What business can we have with art at all unless all can share it.” Sharing. And that is the core of what Jelena loves about what she does in the SLSO. Sharing with colleagues, with conductors, with audience, with the volunteers.

“And all of a sudden I can’t share.”

Jelena, speaking over the phone from her Central West End home, quotes the well-known saying: You don’t know what you have until its gone. “Not that I wasn’t aware that I loved my job,” she says. “But I’ve achieved a new understanding of how much I love it.”

Long-term thinking gives her comfort. “I’m spending this time preparing to share when I go back to work.” She is asking herself: What are the things I want to work on in my playing, to get even better at sharing?

Let’s call these the Three Rs.

Reeds. “We always talk about reeds,” she laughs. “One thing I’m afraid of is that I’ll get out of practice. I’m trying, every time I sit down, I make a reed, whether or not I use it.”

Refinements. “I’ve got a bunch of etude books out, and have started working on little things, little refinements I usually don’t have time for: The precision of my fingers, tone production. Am I keeping my left-hand ring finger in the right place?”

Repertoire. “I’m trying out pieces I haven’t ever played, or pieces I’m hoping to play, concertos, new contemporary pieces.” An example is Paul Patterson’s Phoenix Concerto, “which is really cool piece.”

Jelena Dirks and Stephane Deneve SLSO rehearsal backstage
Jelena and SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève share a moment discussing music during a rehearsal break

And Jelena has been using several tools during this time of uncertainty.

First, Gospel Sunday. Jelena’s husband used to work early on a Sunday, and would listen to Gospel music as he traveled to work. Gospel Sunday migrated to their home, to other days, to any time they need uplift.

“We’ve been doing a lot of Gospel Sunday,” says Jelena, who points to “the amazing group called The Harmonizing Four, and their song, ‘Motherless Child.’” And to Sam Cooke, particularly the song, “Change is Gonna Come.”

Second, Song a Day with Ms. H. “We have a friend who’s posting a song each day on YouTube.” She sings and plays ukulele with her two children, five and eight. “My husband is so inspired that he’s learning the ukulele!”

Third, and most importantly, a concept that she and her husband recently discovered: flexible hope. As the SLSO gathered for its final service, there was a feeling of uncertainty, “of not knowing what was going to happen, when we would see each other again.”

In flexible hope, “As we look forward, we’re hopeful” but still trying to stay open to whatever might happen. “If circumstances change, then I’m going to be hopeful again.”


Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.


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