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Critic's notebook: What happened to the St. Louis Symphony on its tour? [Updated]

April 20, 2010 |  4:28 pm

Orchestra tours are best arranged by rocket scientists. They require juggling the travel needs and expenses of a large symphony, hauling its precious instruments, adapting to new acoustical environments and programming in ways that will interest different kinds of audiences. And it never hurts to start out strong.

The St. Louis Symphony didn’t start out strong last week on its first tour to California in a decade and its first under its electrifying music director, David Robertson. For some reason, the orchestra began in Los Angeles at Walt Disney Concert Hall with an evening of chamber orchestra works by Mozart and Stravinsky (which happened to be very similar to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Mozart/Stravinsky combination last weekend). St. Louis also traveled with another far more ambitious and newsworthy program for full ensemble that included the West Coast premiere of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” Symphony and a performance of Christopher Rouse’s “Rapture” along with Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto. That was what the Palm Desert and Davis got. Both programs were played in San Francisco.

Why in the world would this orchestra want to underplay its strengths in the first and largest city of its tour and playing for the first time in a stellar concert hall?  Theories abounded: It was cheaper not to fly all the musicians out for the start. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was the presenter for the L.A. concert and perhaps Adams, himself, or Gustavo Dudamel wanted to be the first to conduct “Doctor Atomic” in Disney.

“We wanted 'Doctor Atomic' and the Rouse,” Los Angeles Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda wrote in an e-mail, but St. Louis required the chamber program because of its severe budget problems. She also noted that the Philharmonic paid the price for this at the box office, since Los Angeles audiences are among the most adventurous in the country and this more modest chamber offering didn’t sell very well.

According to Fred Bronstein, president and executive director of the St. Louis Symphony, the tour concept was discussed several years ago by a previous management team. In the end, the tour “was bookended with the chamber program for economic efficiency,” he wrote in a statement, "not because of severe budget issues."

But the whole thing appears to have simply gotten out of control. All the players ultimately needed to be in Los Angeles the day of the chamber concert in order to get to Palm Desert for the next day’s show. And the chamber program proved a poor idea. It was played in Disney without a sound check and that meant the orchestra needed the first half of the evening to adjust its balances.

Sarah Bryan Miller, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch music critic who followed the tour, wrote that in San Francisco, the chamber program got a smaller crowd than the full orchestra one, although she noted how happy the orchestra was about its California appearances and she called it “a fitting end to a thoroughly triumphant tour.” How quickly they forget.

-- Mark Swed

[For the Record: An earlier post incorrectly credited Bronstein as saying that St. Louis had originally proposed presenting both programs at Disney.  And the update also adds Bronstein's qualification that the cost-effective measures of beginning and ending the tour were not taken because of severe budget issues.]


Music review: David Robertson brings the St. Louis Symphony to Disney

David Robertson heads home, bringing some St. Louis friends

Photo: Violinist Gil Shaham and conductor David Robertson with the St. Louis Symphony in Walt Disney Concert Hall Wednesday night. Credit: Bret Hartman / For The Times