DAVID HALEN, concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra,
gives a one-line job description: "I look at myself as the
conductor's right-hand man."
Last fall, when the Symphony's new music director, Hans Vonk,
had to use his right arm throwing out the first pitch at a
Cardinals game, it was Halen who gave the Dutch conductor a lesson
on the great American pastime of baseball.
"We practiced in the parking lot outside Powell Hall the
morning of," says Halen. "We managed not to break any car windows."
And as for Vonk's pitching arm?
"His pitches were pretty good," says Halen in a voice filled
with that slightly suspect earnestness that Al Gore uses when he
talks about Bill Clinton's character.
Halen, who appears as a violin soloist with the Symphony this
weekend, is completely devoted to the orchestra. He was born in
Springfield, Mo., and grew up there and in Rolla and Warrensburg
with two orchestras in his life. Through his mother, Thalia, who
retired as a violinist with the Kansas City Symphony last year, he
knew a Missouri orchestra to the west; and yet there was always the
draw of the St. Louis Symphony, farther to the east.
"For me, the St. Louis Symphony is like the Vienna
Philharmonic," says Halen. "I looked up to them. And now, to be
concertmaster, it's like playing for the Cards after admiring Ozzie
Smith all your life."
Halen comes from a thoroughly musical family. Not only was his
mother a violinist, but his father and brother as well. His father,
Walter, taught violin at Central Missouri State University, and
brother Eric is acting associate concertmaster with the Houston
Symphony. It was the kind of family in which the black sheep is the
kid who considers becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
"I did consider other fields," says Halen. "My parents were
relieved when I decided on music. When I was 17 or 18, I played the
Mendelssohn violin concerto in public for the first time, and I was
deeply affected by it. I really do believe that music can be a
solution for society's ills, and the decision to become a musician
has been a saving grace for me personally. I am a better person for
At the age of 36, Halen is one of the youngest concertmasters
in the country, and his career has progressed quickly. He graduated
from high school at 17, from college at 19, and then became one of
the youngest persons ever to win a Fulbright scholarship. The
Fulbright took him to Germany, where he studied for two years at
the Freiburg Hochschule.
"It's very important for American musicians to live in Europe
for a time," says Halen. "Our musical culture is so dominated by
European music that you have to have some idea of the culture it
After Germany, it was back to the states where, after finishing
his musical training, he was selected to become a member of the
Harrington Quartet, a plum position in a newly created group
endowed by Sybil Harrington, a prominent supporter of the arts. It
looked good from the outside, but from the inside it was a
"The dynamics of a string quartet - it's a bit like being
married to three people," says Halen. "It could be a really great
position. We had the promise of unlimited travel, concerts, a
secure position in the quartet. But there was just too much
fighting. Everything seemed like a struggle."
He remembered his mother's experience as an orchestra member as
an essentially happy one. …