By Tim Munro
“We normally live in this bubble of relative safety,” says SLSO Concertmaster David Halen. “It is easy to take things for granted.”
I catch David on a Sunday. This new reality has allowed David space to reflect on his more than three-decade career as a performer. “It’s very emotional when I think about it.”
He feels lucky to have the opportunity to share this art form with colleagues and the general public. Classical music, he says, is “a metaphor for the beauty of the human species—what it is capable of accomplishing together. It reminds me how fortunate we are to live in the world that we do.”
As David recalls the SLSO’s last rehearsal, with Music Director Stéphane Denève conducting Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, he reaches for the right words: “To experience those kinds of sounds, the incredible beauty of this combined effort and collaboration—this kind of storytelling is something that—now that it’s not possible—I look forward to coming back to it even more than before, whenever that is..”
In this time of uncertainty, David is trying to stay healthy as a musician. “If you take two or three months off and then go back on the stage, it feels very awkward. One of the reasons that in the past I’ve tried to fill my schedule, even in the weeks off with the orchestra, is to stay in condition.”
David is scheduled to play the William Bolcom Violin Concerto at the end of April, and continues to work on the concerto. Whether or not the concert is able to go ahead, he adds, “I do it for my emotional wellbeing. I find it very therapeutic. I am focused on the future, on projects coming up.”
David also finds himself doing a different sort of playing. The thick of the SLSO season can be a blizzard of “three or four pieces for next week, then music behind those pieces.” Now, “I’ll be playing more scales and etudes than I have in years,” he laughs.
These days, David is a close watcher of the news. But he’s also reading about history. “There’s so much to be learned about our present day from history, about the human response to crises.”
He has an ongoing fascination with Roman history, and since the pandemic he has been studying the so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918. This pandemic had a St. Louis connection, he says. By the time it reached the city, leaders were ready. They shut down St. Louis, flattening the curve.
Powell Hall was built in 1925, shortly after World War I and the flu pandemic, he says. “In spite of the terrible disease, this building was constructed, it survived and evolved, through vaudeville theater into silent film and then into sound film, and now it is being used by one of the great orchestras of the world.
“It’s a great metaphor for our future. That we will go on, and that we will come back together 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.