By Eric Dundon
When Stephen Chicurel-Stein walked onto the podium to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a Young People’s Concert in the 1990s, his musical journey came full circle.
Sitting in the front row was a group of students from the elementary school he attended in University City. Chicurel-Stein first watched SLSO concerts with awe as an elementary school student. Soon after, he decided that music would become his life’s path.
As Chicurel-Stein conducted the concert of tunes by Bernstein, Rossini, William Grant Still, and others, his uncle, John Stein—an avid supporter of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra—watched with pride.
John Stein was what you could call a “die-hard” fan of the SLSO. In fact, the Stein family has a longstanding relationship with the orchestra. A German-Jewish family from northern Bavaria, the Steins escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 after difficult years of hiding and evasion. Chicurel-Stein’s grandmother, Lore Stein, was a concert pianist. They fled to the United States and eventually put down roots in St. Louis.
“From that time on, music—and the SLSO—was a significant part of my grandparents’ lives, then of my parents’ and uncle’s lives, and ultimately, in the largest way, my life,” he said.
The first experience Chicurel-Stein had in Powell Hall took place before the building had that name. He saw the final film shown when the building was known as the St. Louis Theater—The Sound of Music.
“I remember thinking, ‘This room! I’ve never seen anything like that!’” he recalled of his fascination.
Then, in 1969, as an elementary school student, he saw then–Assistant Conductor Leonard Slatkin conduct a concert that included the magnificent “Jupiter” movement from Holst’s The Planets. Chicurel-Stein calls that a transcendent moment in his life.
From then on, he was hooked on the music. Hooked on how music can bring people together. And hooked on a career as a conductor.
Chicurel-Stein studied conducting privately with a venerable who’s who of SLSO artistic leaders: Jerzy Semkow, Leonard Slatkin, Walter Susskind, and Gerhardt Zimmermann. He also studied with four well-known former SLSO musicians: longtime Principal Clarinetist George Silfies, Associate Concertmaster John Korman, Assistant Principal Violist Joan Korman, and “the Principal Timpanist of the World”—as Chicurel-Stein described him—Richard Holmes.
“The time and devotion that I felt given to me by those members of the orchestra, both conductors and instrumentalists,” Chicurel-Stein reflected, “I couldn’t begin to quantify it.”
Observing Chicurel-Stein’s ascent into the classical music landscape was his family and Uncle John.
While Chicurel-Stein attended Northwestern University to pursue music, and eventually held conducting positions with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, and others, the Stein family continued their devotion to the SLSO.
“Our family was sustained by this great repertoire,” Chicurel-Stein recalled in a phone conversation. “My grandparents and my uncle lived for the symphony. There’s nothing we loved more than going together to hear the orchestra.”
The Stein family became known to SLSO staff. As a student, Chicurel-Stein remembered former ticketing manager Anna Rice fondly. She would accommodate last-minute seating changes for Chicurel-Stein as a student subscriber.
“What kind of performing arts institution cares for its members of the community like that? The St. Louis Symphony does,” he said.
Chicurel-Stein, who is now a rabbi and lives in Florida, remembered back to his debut conducting the SLSO in that October 1995 Young People’s Concert. He paused as he saw the faces of the musicians who mentored him. He remembers looking out into the hall that inspired him for decades. And his uncle, who supported not only him but the entire SLSO for decades, enjoyed the concert not just in person, but from the very center of the front row.
“I walked out onto the podium,” Chicurel-Stein said. “My Uncle John was in Row A right underneath the podium. I could have taken a bow and fallen right onto him. It doesn’t get better than that.”
John Stein left the world in November 2018 while, according to Chicurel-Stein, listening to Mozart symphonies. One of his wishes was for Chicurel-Stein to “take care of our symphony.”
Following his uncle’s death, Chicurel-Stein and his sister Lara Steinel made a generous tribute gift to the SLSO’s Annual Fund in his uncle’s memory that will directly sustain the SLSO’s core classical performances—performances that left a deep impact in the life of John Stein.
Reflecting on his gift, Chicurel-Stein said, “I could only think of what the SLSO has given to me. What the symphony has given to my family. And not to mention what the SLSO has given to St. Louis.”
To make a tribute gift, visit https://secure.donationpay.org/slso/.
Eric Dundon is the Public Relations Manager for the SLSO.