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INTERVIEW / New tune for Louis: Leonard Slatkin has put the Budweiser town on the orchestral map. Edward Seckerson met him

Many things about the city have changed since Judy Garland first invited Louis to meet her there. The World's Fair came and went. So did the trolleys. The Gateway Arch rose from the west bank of the Mississippi - shining symbol of America's frontier spirit - and Budweiser opened a brewery. Some things never change: ol' man river just keeps rolling along, albeit higher and wider of late.

Gateway to the West, that's Saint Louis - and never mind the song, it's pronounced L-e-w-i-s. The natives are very particular. These days, Budweiser and baseball may still be way out in front on the civic pride stakes. But over at Powell Hall - a plush, gold-leafed old Vaudeville Theatre, turned movie theatre, turned concert hall (prophetically, the last movie to play there was The Sound of Music) - the Saint Louis Symphony is slowly but surely closing the gap.

America's second oldest orchestra is on the move again. A European tour, a blueprint for change back home - and Leonard Slatkin, the man who has nurtured it into the premier league over 15 years as music director, is still in there pitching. Slatkin's association with the orchestra goes back some 25 years when he was Walter Susskind's assistant. His father rose to become its youngest ever assistant concert master until Vladimir Golschmann (the orchestra's conductor, 1931-58) refused him a five- dollar raise. The young man went west, of course: he and his wife, a cellist, founded the Hollywood Quartet and gave birth to a son.

When Slatkin took charge of the orchestra, it was good but anonymous. Slatkin had a plan. While orchestras across America were shifting more and more into an Austro- Germanic mode, to be judged first and foremost on the quality of their Bruckner and their Mahler, Slatkin initiated a significant shift of emphasis towards the Slavonic, the English and, most importantly, the American. He effectively 'opted out' of the competition; Saint Louis would do its own thing, cultivate its own specialities. The first composer-in-residence was appointed, Joseph Schwantner. Names such as William Schuman, Walter Piston, Samuel Barber figured prominently in long-term recording plans for the RCA label. Grammy nominations started coming in (28 over 14 years): the orchestra's 1984 recording of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony made quite a splash. Bigger splashes followed.

But as important as any of this was a consistency of quality in the orchestra itself. Ask Slatkin about the sound and he will tell you that he has always favoured something less stereotypically, brassily 'American', something more homogeneous. His trumpets play on rotary- valve instruments for a mellower tone; and the last time he auditioned a tuba player, he insisted upon hearing him in situ among the basses and timpani - the well- stocked 'cellar' of the orchestra. His first clarinet came from George Szell's Cleveland Orchestra in 1970, and he and his three colleagues have been the same now for almost 24 years. They practically read one another's minds.

Cultivating the string sound took time. Slatkin was the first string- playing conductor the orchestra had had in decades. 'This is the largest body of players in the orchestra, and I believe that having played yourself, you have a greater sensitivity and awareness of what they require of you on questions of bowing, vibrato and so on. I go for a riper, well-nourished sonority which you could say harkens back to the string orientation that became a hallmark of the old Philadelphia or Boston orchestras as opposed to the leaner Cleveland or even New York sound these days.'

His own orchestral string parts are marked up with some surprisingly unorthodox bowing variations. In order to achieve long, seamless lines he will sometimes opt for a kind of staggered bowing, with some players going over the barline so as to avoid beginning-of- bar accenting. All part of the Saint Louis blend - as is the sound of Powell Hall in which they live, rehearse, perform, and record. In a sense, the Saint Louis Symphony take the sound of their hall with them wherever they go.

Slatkin is a great respecter of character, of individuality, wherever and whoever he conducts. He may insist upon his own parts ('conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Rachmaninov with Eugene Ormandy's parts was like having Ormandy up there on the rostrum with you]'), but he wouldn't dream of interfering with an orchestra's idiosyncrasies. 'That's like going into a nice home and saying, you know, I'd like to move that couch or those cabinets] No, what you do is you come in and make yourself as comfortable as you can within their surroundings. Your very presence, your particular emanations make the difference . . .

'But you know, orchestras are sounding more and more alike these days, and it's sad. The world has got smaller, orchestras hear more of each other . . .' During rehearsals for a performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with the Czech Philharmonic, a delegation from the brass section once asked Slatkin how they could sound more like the Chicago Symphony - 'because they were the best brass section in the world'. His reply? 'You don't want to sound like the Chicago Symphony. You want to sound like the Czech Philharmonic. That's the orchestra I came here to conduct.'

Orchestra-building is a lengthy process. Audience-building takes a little longer. In Saint Louis, with its sizeable African American community, the imperative for change has proved irresistible. No orchestra is an island; certainly not here. 'Community partner' - that's how Slatkin sees the Saint Louis Symphony of the future. 'We can't be passive any longer. Our role is changing. I believe orchestras across America will have to wake up to that fact.' To which end, he and his administrators have established specific programmes. 'Outreach' aims to boldly go where government funding will not: practical music education, summer camp, youth orchestra and the like. 'In Unison' is about spreading the word - through the churches, through the spiritual heartland of the black community - that the Symphony, the Powell Hall experience, is as much a black as a white 'thing'. Brenda Jones, community relations administrator for the Symphony, has had to tread carefully: 'It's been important for us not to suddenly appear in the African American community saying that after 125 years of existence, we woke up yesterday and discovered you were there and we love you . . . It's not about tokenism, political correctness. It's about a genuine desire to promote an exchange of cultures.' Church groups are taking advantage of substantial discounts for the Symphony, a concert series entitled Classically Black sets out to reaffirm that music in all its cultural diversity essentially comes from the same place.

Over at the New Northside Baptist Church (one of nine congregations currently in the programme), a young, probably untrained female singer hurls out the word in great soaring melismas. Bel canto, Gospel, and Soul are one. Meanwhile, down by the river, a lone trumpeter takes up his regular pitch under the freeway. He plays from music perched somewhat incongruously on a music stand. Shades of the Saint Louis blues - another symbol of untapped talent. While the Symphony tours Europe, the true spirit of Saint Louis may be out of sight, but not out of mind.

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 19 November; Royal Festival Hall, 21

(Photograph omitted)