By Tim Munro
Backstage, Powell Hall is buzzing. Snatches of energetic conversation are trailed by
giggles. Teenagers fly past me carrying music stands and chairs. Bursts of Smetana and
Tchaikovsky leak from hallways and staff offices.
I am here on a Saturday morning in March to immerse myself in the inner workings of the
St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. Founded in 1970 by Leonard Slatkin (see interview with
Slatkin on page 8), the SLSYO has an enviable reputation. The ensemble plays three concerts in Powell Hall each year and is currently directed by SLSO Resident Conductor Gemma New.
Before rehearsals begin, I speak with two SLSYO musicians, Zach Foulks and Madeline De
Geest. The thoughtfulness and poise of these young people entirely bowls me over. I leave our chat with a spring in my step.
Foulks, clarinet, is a college junior at University of Missouri Science and Technology,
double-majoring in chemistry and biology. He makes a four-hour round trip from his dorm in
Rolla each week to play in the SLSYO.
De Geest, violin, is, at thirteen, the youngest member of the orchestra. She is in her second
year with the SLSYO and is an artist with wide-ranging interests: she also plays the piano,
paints, and composes.
[These interviews have been edited for length and clarity, and questions have been removed.]
Madeline De Geest: Ever since I was little I loved music. When I was a baby, the only way to
get me to stop crying was to play Bach’s Arioso [from Cantata BWV 156]. I really wanted to play music when I was three. But my hands were tiny, so my parents were like, “Maybe you should wait a little bit.”
Zach Foulks: I’d never played in an orchestra before; it had always been band music. SLSYO
has a great reputation, and I was intimidated at first. When I joined, two of the other three
clarinetists were juniors and seniors in college. And here I was, a junior in high school.
MDG: It’s really fun to meet all these people with the same musical interests as me. I don’t
feel [like I’m the youngest]. I have a sister who is sixteen and sometimes I can fool people into
thinking I’m the older one!
ZF: One of my passions in life is enjoying and performing classical music. It introduces creativity into my way of thinking. Scientists and STEM majors tend to look at things more logically. A different way of looking at things has helped me think of interesting, innovative solutions to research projects I’ve been working on.
MDG: Music is like painting, which I also like to do. You can make a painting with what you have: you can pick your style, you can pick what you want to bring to the forefront, you can pick what your color scheme will be. You can do that also with the tone of your music. That’s why I started taking conducting lessons, to be able to create my own picture. You can hear one piece, then you can hear it from a completely different person, and it’s a completely different picture, different colors, different image.
ZF: In SLSYO I’ve gotten to play with the best musicians I’ve ever played with. There are plenty of people who have gone onto Juilliard afterwards.
MDG: And the sound of the hall is amazing. I love it. This is the biggest hall I’ve played in. You’ll be playing sometimes, and you’ll look out and…[she draws a dramatic breath]. [SLSYO] auditions are quite intimidating. There are two rounds. The preliminaries are for people who haven’t gotten into SLSYO yet. Once you get in you only have to do the finals. The finals are on the big stage at Powell Hall. It’s empty, and there’s this big, black screen, and then just you and a stand. And [SLSO musicians] talk from behind the screen: “Now you play this,” “Now you play that.”
ZF: Gemma [New] is so good at bringing out the passions in music. Over time, she’ll introduce the background to the piece. I get so much out of that. When I know what I’m supposed to be envisioning when I’m playing a particular theme, I’m able to interpret it better.
MDG: I really enjoy Ms. New, because she is really exhilarating and has so much energy when she conducts.
ZF: Occasionally, we get to work side-by side with the symphony musicians. They play alongside us in the big rehearsal. In addition to them telling you what to do, you get to hear them play alongside you, so you know how to imitate them, how you should play it.
MDG: I liked the side-by-side rehearsal with Stéphane Denève. He was so interesting.
ZF: Denève has a real passion for music. He’s very good at finding ways of saying things that communicate the idea he wants to express in the music. There was a French saying, something like, “I am pointing at the moon. It’s a shame that you’re looking at my finger.” [Which meant, basically,] I want you to reach for the moon. You’re not looking big enough.
MDG: One of my favorite pieces [in SLSYO] was [Jean Sibelius’] Finlandia. I thought the
backstory was really interesting. It speaks for the independence of Finland and became the national anthem of Finland. I like the original name more: Finland Awakes!
ZF: There’s so much emotion in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. It’s not the happiest piece, but I love when there are conflicting emotions. If everything is happy and light in a piece…that’s boring. And I don’t care about my specific role [as a clarinetist] in the music, as long as the music itself is great.
MDG: [Anna Clyne’s Abstractions] was the first modern piece I played. Such an interesting piece, at the end of one of the movements there’s a whip-crack. It snaps, and everyone jumps. It was really very, very fun.
By the time I finish speaking with Zach and Madeline, Powell Hall’s backstage rooms are packed, ready for “sectionals,” where SLSO players coach young musicians who play their instrument. Earlier, Madeline had pointed out the importance of sectionals, saying they allow players to focus just on their part, to work on things “that you don’t get to in the full group.”
Violas squeeze into the green room, bassoons hike up to the eighth floor. I head to the Whitaker Room, to observe SLSO violinist Alison Harney working with SLSYO second violins.
Harney leads the seconds through an awkward section of Smetana’s Die Moldau. They begin slowly, zooming in on difficult passages. “Who’s doing this in first position?” Harney asks, referring to a fingering position. After a phrase trips players up, Harney says, “I mark in where the whole steps are, and that can help those of you who are visual learners.”
Later, when the section plays at a faster tempo, Harney draws out more musical drama. “It should surge like a river…more accents here. Make sure to keep the intensity!”
Emerging from the Whitaker Room, I catch the eye of Darla Davis, the mother of two young SLSYO musicians, Madeleine and Olivia. Families of SLSYO members are all unsung heroes, making sacrifices so these young musicians can play in the orchestra. Davis is no exception: she and her daughters make a roughly four-hour roundtrip journey for each rehearsal.
“We believe it’s a very valuable pursuit to invest in music,” says Davis. “It is a very good discipline for yourself. And it is such a beautiful thing to offer to others.” I ask what her daughters value most about SLSYO. “They are thankful for the opportunity to join together with others that put a high value on music and excellence, and being part of something bigger than yourself.”
“And Ms. Gemma New,” Davis says with eagerness. “My daughters have a very high respect for her. They often will listen to other recordings, but they prefer the way Miss Gemma conducts over other versions!”