Live Concerts Return to Powell Hall

Beginning in October, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has resumed in-person concerts at Powell Hall, with many safety measures and protocols in place.

As I stepped away from the rain and cold waiting outside and into Powell Hall, I felt an overwhelming amount of warmth. The entryway, which, according to an usher, was modelled after the Palace of Versailles, felt huge and dazzling with large chandeliers, red velvet and mirrors that exaggerated it all. The room was mostly empty, except for the few ushers and a couple patrons readying themselves for that night’s performance. 

I clicked my unfamiliar-feeling heels over to the box office to ask for some help with a problem I had with my ticket. The lady working was kind, and expressed she hadn’t had to deal with a problem like this in forever, seeing as they’d been closed for so long. But it was nice, she said, familiar.

I scanned my ticket on the new, contact-free scanners and followed the taped arrows on the red carpet up to the balcony. An usher waited by the door and pointed me to a seat tied off with ribbon. No one else sat by me for several rows, and in the red sea of empty seats, I got a thrill from being in a type of place I hadn’t realized I’d missed. 

Back in March of this year, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), like many other establishments, suspended their in-person concerts at Powell Hall with the intention of keeping their employees and patrons safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Public relations manager of the SLSO, Eric Dundon, said that the initial transition was predictably very difficult. A large part of the symphony’s funding relies on ticket sales, so the financial burden paired with the isolation of working from home, instead of where the music happens, was hard. But they were quick to shift their mentality toward creativity. 

“We really didn’t miss a beat,” Dudon said. “Yes, our concerts in our home at Powell Hall were postponed or canceled, starting in March, but really quite immediately our musicians were very creative and nimble during that first period of time in the pandemic.”

Four music stands faced each other in a small circle on the wide, expansive stage. General Manager of the SLSO, Erik Finley, walked on and thanked the handful of people in the audience for being here. He stumbled a bit on his words as he explained the night’s program, which brought a wave of comfort—we’re all re-learning how to act and speak in public again. He explained that tonight’s concert was part of a series featuring 18 composers, old and new, and 6 chambers. That evening, however, we’d be hearing about home and about a home away from home, which was fitting because it was “also a homecoming for us,” Finley said. He called the auditorium “our very grand living room, that only comes alive with you in it.” 

The musicians took stage and began a piece that was curious, exciting and wonderfully alive. They all wore matching SLSO masks.

Beginning in January and February, the SLSO was monitoring the quickly worsening pandemic. They utilized the help of St. Louis City and St. Louis County experts, as well as a team identified within the administration of the SLSO, who worked with a group of physicians and infectious disease specialists at the Washington University School of Medicine. 

“They’ve been instrumental at helping to guide our decision-making through this entire process,” Dundon said. “Obviously this is new for almost all of us. So it was with their advice and our desire to make sure that we keep all of our patrons, musicians and staff safe, that we arrived to postpone or cancel concerts.”

Immediately following these cancellations, the orchestra began developing plans for how to keep the music alive. There were a number of virtual events, in which they utilized their various online platforms to promote a deeper understanding of classical music. Their monthly series of virtual conversations, Lunch & Learns, hosted by music director Stéphane Denève continues on. They also held virtual concerts and a series of outdoor, limited-capacity, pop-up concerts, which they referred to as SLSO On the Go, and have since slowed as the weather grows colder. 

“I think a lot of musicians will say this has been a really nice time for them to explore some things on their own, and we love to be able to shine a spotlight on that,” Dundon said.

The musicians finished their piece and rose to face the standing ovation in the audience, where the clapping and whoops shouted out were just as sincere as the music we had just heard. 

“While there was definitely a sting and a pain of having to put a pause on our concerts, there was also a real sense of rejuvenation, and a sense that this was an opportunity that we can seize on,” Dundon said.