Right-Hand Man Whatever the Problem, Concertmaster David Halen of the St. Louis Symphony Knows How to Find Solutions

By Philip Kennicott Post-Dispatch Classical Music Critic | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

Right-Hand Man Whatever the Problem, Concertmaster David Halen of the St. Louis Symphony Knows How to Find Solutions


Philip Kennicott Post-Dispatch Classical Music Critic, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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 it." 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 came from." 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 different story. "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. …

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