By Eric Dundon
Few people, if any, outside of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra organization know the institution as intimately as Sarah Bryan Miller, classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. On the first concert of almost every SLSO program for more than 20 years, musicians, fellow concertgoers, and ushers know to expect Miller listening keenly to every nuance of a program.
She picks up on the smallest details. Her ear for intonation is practically unmatched. Her ability to identify subtle orchestral colors in new work is astonishing.
She cares truly, deeply for the art form. Writing about music is her life’s calling, she told people at the St. Louis Press Club’s Media Persons of the Year ceremony in November 2019.
A lot has changed since Miller started writing for the Post-Dispatch in the late 1990s. She’s seen the introduction of Live at Powell Hall concerts, gone on tour with the orchestra, and chronicled the institution’s history. She’s written about three Music Directors: Hans Vonk, David Robertson, and now, Stéphane Denève.
One thing, though, has remained constant, she said:
“The high quality has stayed the same.”
From her days covering the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the Chicago Tribune, she became familiar with the SLSO through recordings. She knew the orchestra’s ability and nimbleness to perform a wide variety of repertoire at a high level.
Recalling one of the first SLSO concerts she heard in person, she remembered the shatteringly delicate work by the strings during a performance of a Bruckner symphony under then-Music Director Hans Vonk. The reputation that precedes the SLSO is accurate, she remembered thinking.
Not long after she began covering the SLSO, the orchestra toured to Europe. Audiences there, she said, also knew of the SLSO’s prestige, and packed concert halls in anticipation. Surprisingly, some of the audience members knew individual SLSO musicians.
“I was struck by the recognition in Europe,” she said. “I remember one audience member asking, ‘Do you know Susan Slaughter?’”—referring to the SLSO’s then-Principal Trumpet player.
Over the years, Miller connected with musicians on a deep level, earning their trust.
“The fact that I had been a professional musician myself made a difference,” she offered.
Miller sang professionally with several organizations, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Even when the orchestra went through a turbulent time of financial uncertainty, Miller noticed that the outside pressures didn’t affect the quality of the performances. The concerts were always executed brilliantly. Her diligent work covering the orchestra’s finances led to a Pulitzer Prize nomination from the Post-Dispatch and left an indelible impact on the SLSO. Her reporting prompted the Taylor family to double its financial commitment to the SLSO in 2000, a fundraising challenge that would eventually raise $80 million for the SLSO and put it on the path to financial stability the institution enjoys today.
Through the challenges, the SLSO remained “a very cohesive orchestra and they kept the quality up,” she said.
Throughout David Robertson’s tenure as Music Director from 2005-2018, Miller noticed a focused commitment to new music. Today, the SLSO’s current Music Director, Stéphane Denève, is a champion of emerging composers and their work. His programming is notable for its inclusion of today’s composers, including Tan Dun, Jessie Montgomery, Joan Tower, James MacMillan, John Adams, and others. Denève’s zeal for finding new music that audiences love appeals to Miller, who describes the selections as “high quality.”
“New pieces are presented by Denève in a way that make people pay attention,” she said.
New music is one facet of Denève’s leadership that has Miller feeling optimistic about the SLSO’s future. She wrote about all of Denève’s engagements as the orchestra’s guest conductor from 2003 until the announcement in June 2017 that he would become the next SLSO Music Director.
“He was always extremely well prepared,” she said. “His musicianship is wonderful.”
The chemistry between Denève and the orchestra, she said, is palpable.
“He works well with the orchestra. In fairness,” she mused, “this is an orchestra that makes conductors sound good.”
“They make each other sound better.”
That sentiment reminds Miller of when the SLSO performed at the BBC Proms in 2012 under Robertson. The Royal Albert Hall is enormous, with 7,000 seats. The SLSO filled every seat and every spot on the floor for a performance of works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, and Gershwin. The orchestra received a prolonged standing ovation.
“Robertson had them [the audience] in the palm of his hands,” she said.
She sees similarities with Denève, whose stage presence, warmth, and enthusiasm immediately draws in an audience. She regularly writes about Denève’s pre-concert remarks; his charm and wit that genuinely connects audiences with music has quickly become a signature of his Music Directorship.
“But they [Robertson and Denève] couldn’t do it without a superb orchestra,” she explained.
In the partial season Denève has led the SLSO as Music Director, she has noticed differences in the orchestra, even as the season was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He has refined the sound of the orchestra in some ways,” she said. “Orchestras have personalities. And the SLSO has a very good personality. They’re very musical and distinctive in the best way. And I see that continuing to be refined.”
Orchestral performances live in a fluid world as organizations become creative to engage audiences. But at the core of the orchestra remains musical excellence. Miller knows this well, and over 20 years, hasn’t seen the SLSO’s excellence diminish. In many ways, she feels it’s gotten stronger.
“I really believe St. Louis can be very proud of its orchestra.”
Eric Dundon is the SLSO's Public Relations Manager.