By Eric Dundon
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 2023 European tour is in full swing, having given its first concert in Vienna, Austria, since 1993. Principal Oboist Jelena Dirks discussed her perspective on touring and how the tour has gone so far.
The tour continues with concerts in Brussels, Belgium; Eindhoven and Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Madrid, Spain.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Eric Dundon: We're speaking in Brussels, Belgium, right now. The first concert of the European tour was a couple days ago in Vienna. Has it sunk in that this orchestra is back on a major international tour?
Jelena Dirks: You know, I'm not sure I've even taken a second to think about it, but, yes, maybe in some ways. It's incredible to be back on the road and playing in cities like Vienna and Brussels.
ED: Has your perspective on touring changed since this is the first time the orchestra has been abroad since the pandemic?
JD: I think it seems even more precious, the chance to share music and to do so internationally. For me, the pandemic brought such a perspective of gratitude, especially for the audiences both at home in St. Louis and internationally. To see so many Viennese people attend our concert was incredible.
ED: What was that like to perform in a city that has such a rich cultural heritage?
JD: There's such a sense of history and responsibility, which is amazing. You're walking by the Steinway and Sons Piano Gallery, and the Schubert statue, and then the Beethoven and Mozart houses. It’s incredible. I remember thinking in the middle performing of the Rachmaninoff [Symphonic Dances, which concludes the SLSO’s tour program] that I have to take in this moment and remember that I am playing in this amazing hall in Vienna and for this audience. And then I have to concentrate on the music! So, I just want to soak it all in.
ED: What was your experience of the Vienna Konzerthaus?
JD: I walked in and thought, “wow, this is a pretty beautiful hall.” It's just this immense rectangular space and is so elegant and so beautifully proportioned. Then to get on stage and hear the first chords of the Rachmaninoff—it's a very clear and resonant sound. I really believe that the hall produces the orchestra in a lot of ways. How the orchestra develops is partially due to the hall that we play in. The chance to play somewhere else and to see what we can bring with us to that space and how we adapt to is wonderful to see.
ED: What types of things were you able to do outside of the concert in Vienna?
JD: I had been to Vienna with my grandmother many years ago, and I remember going to see Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” I had such an incredible memory of walking into the room where it is, and the windows happened to be open, which I think must have been a very rare thing. I looked it up online and there was a Klimt exhibition where they had put together works by artists he had seen alongside works that he'd done in that same time period. It was absolutely stunning to see his inspiration and then what this artist did with that inspiration.
ED: Were the windows open this time?
JD: Sadly, they were not!
ED: After Brussels, the orchestra is traveling to three additional cities: Eindhoven, Amsterdam, and Madrid. Do you have a particular location you're most looking forward to?
JD: Absolutely! I am looking forward to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I was fortunate enough to work quite a bit with Bernard Haitink, the late conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, when I lived in Chicago. I loved him so dearly and he was very encouraging. Getting to play in there, and sit where he sat, will be incredible.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Director.