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David Halen: Concertmaster, virtuoso, teacher

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 2, 2012 - It’s a Tuesday afternoon at the venerable Sheldon Concert Hall, designed by Louis Spiering as a venue for chamber music when it opened in 1912 as the home of the Ethical Society of St. Louis.

Appropriately enough, six classical musicians are rehearsing on stage, preparing for a chamber music concert at the 700-plus-seat hall.

All of the musicians are members of the St. Louis Symphony, which makes its home at nearby Powell Hall in Grand Center. Five of the performers, violinist Xiaoxiao Qiang, cellists Melissa Brooks and Elizabeth Chung, viola players Weijung Wang and Chris Tantillo, sit listening in a semicircle to violinist David Halen, concertmaster for the SLSO — as he comments on a piece they had just rehearsed.

“Remember, this is a Russian piece,” says Halen, with a special emphasis to the viola players and Qiang. “It’s all down strokes, not up and down. Very Russian.”

Later, after pianist Alla Voskoboynikova joins them, Halen demonstrates what he wants to hear on his own violin, made by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini in 1753. As the rehearsal continues, he adds additional advice on interpretation of the music — as well as slightly repositioning the musicians on stage to achieve better sound balance, asking for lighting adjustments and even giving Chung a hint on how to add theatrical emphasis to a line in Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.”

In addition to his duties as a violinist with the SLSO since 1991 — and the responsibility of being the orchestra’s concertmaster since 1995 and his numerous duties with summer festivals — Halen has taken on the responsibility of programming the Sheldon’s Classical series in recent years.

According to Paul Reuter, executive director of the Sheldon Arts Foundation, Halen’s involvement with the Sheldon is highlighted by not only by his distinctive talent as a musician, but his ability to work with presenters and musicians to create performances that are memorable and appealing to audiences.

"David Halen is one of St. Louis' musical treasures — a virtuoso violinist, of course, but much more,” says Reuter. “David is a collaborator, par excellence, working with many musicians in many genres. Here at The Sheldon, David and I have programmed the Sheldon Classics series, often involving other members of the Symphony, including the newer and younger members, who he finds ways to introduce to St. Louis music audiences. David is a true friend!"

The March 14 concert that was the focus of those Tuesday rehearsals was a prime example of Halen’s approach to programming. Entitled, “David Halen and New Friends from the Saint Louis Symphony,” the performance did indeed highlight many new members of the SLSO such as Qiang, Chung, Wang and Tantillo.

For most of the musicians, it was a first performance in a more intimate chamber music setting in the St. Louis area. And from the enthusiastic response of the Sheldon audience to that concert, it was clear that the event was a success for those listening as well as those performing.

As I learned later in the week when I sat down with Halen for a conversation in the coffee shop of Hotel Indigo in Grand Center, Halen definitely loves playing in an orchestra as concertmaster. But he’s equally pleased to have the chance to perform in more intimate settings — and have the opportunity to teach other musicians along the way.

“Playing at the Sheldon is a little like preaching to the choir,” explains Halen over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake he’s attempting to save and take home to his son. “You know the audience is there because they are dedicated to chamber music. I really enjoy playing at the Sheldon because of the sound of the hall as well as its history and tradition. There’s certainly nothing wrong with playing with a symphony. And Powell Hall is a great space. But there’s something about the intimacy of playing chamber music that is very attractive to me.”

Starting violin at 6

Music has been very attractive to David Halen — primarily classical but other styles as well — since he first began playing violin in 1965. He was 6. His father, Walter Halen, was a violinist, and his mother played music as well, becoming a member of the Kansas City Symphony after the family moved to Warrensburg, Mo., while David was growing up. But there were other early musical influences in his life as well, including jazz.

“My uncle was a cornet player who played in a band called the Dixieland Rhythm Kings back in Ohio,” recalls Halen. “His name was Carl Halen, and he was fairly well known. He was the one who introduced me to the music of Bix Beiderbecke and Joe Venuti. So I was listening to more than just classical music.”

As he grew up, music remained a major element of David Halen’s life, but as he admits now, he didn’t really take it seriously as a possible profession until his mid teens.

“I had been playing violin from the time I was 6,” Halen says. “But I don’t think I really discovered music as something I wanted to do with my life until I was 16. I remember listening to a recording of the Mendelssohn Violin concerto and realizing how unbelievably powerful the music was. It just moved me so incredibly! And then it happened again when I listened to a Beethoven Symphony soon after. This was back in the day when I had speakers the size of washing machines in my bedroom and a big tube amplifier. It was great!”

From that point, there was no turning back for Halen. His primary teacher was his father, Walter, with music providing a strong common ground for father and son — especially in David’s teenage years.

“My father was my teacher for many years,” Halen says, “and we had a great relationship. In addition to being good at teaching the basic concepts of playing the violin, my father was very good at expressing confidence in me — and my playing. So his effectiveness as a teacher really overcame the father-son aspect of us working so closely together.”

Studying in Germany

Halen continued to receive instruction from his father, a professor at Central Missouri State. Halen moved through his college years quickly, earning his bachelor's degree at the age of 19 — and a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to pursue his music studies.

“I was lucky enough to win a Fulbright at that early age,” says Halen. “And although I was young, it did come at the perfect time for me because I knew I needed to go to different places and learn things. And the Fulbright was the perfect vehicle to make that happen.”

Halen decided the place he needed to go was Europe — specifically to study with Wolfgang Marschner at the Freiberg Hochschule für Musik in Germany. It was an experience Halen says he wouldn’t trade for anything — although it involved some initial youthful miscalculations.

“I was definitely young and foolish when I went there,” recalls Halen with a laugh. “I had to spend the night in the train station in Germany when I arrived because I was somehow naively expecting someone to meet me, even though that hadn’t been arranged. But that time studying in Germany taught me so much. The students in my classes there spoke 10 languages, and music was such a central part of the culture there — even more so then than it is now.”

Halen adapted to the new setting for his musical training, but decided that at a certain point, he needed to return to the U.S.

“I was there for a year-and-a-half,” says Halen “And although my Fulbright had been renewed for another year, I was homesick. I decided to study at the University of Illinois at Champaign with Sergiu Luca, and spent three years there. And then I spent a year playing with a quartet, but that felt like being married to three other people. So I decided to audition for a symphony position.”

Auditioning in Houston

His first audition was for the Houston Symphony, and he was accepted quickly for a position.

“That was the first symphony audition I ever took,” says Halen. “And when I won the position, it felt like I was in heaven! I actually collapsed on the sidewalk when I heard the news. Being in the Houston Symphony literally transformed my life. Hearing a hundred or so very talented musicians playing around you was like a dream come true!”

Despite his enjoyment of working with the likes of Christopher Eschenbach in Houston, Halen’s dream job growing up was elsewhere.

“It was always my childhood dream to play with the St. Louis Symphony,” recalls Halen. “At the time I was growing up, the Symphony would tour Missouri frequently, and I remember them coming to Warrensburg several times. And later, I recall them doing side-by-side work with the university orchestra I was in. I can still recall the concertmaster for the symphony driving up in his Jaguar for a rehearsal and then a performance. That was impressive!”

So when Halen saw that a job was open with the SLSO, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I ended up auditioning for the concertmaster position with the St. Louis Symphony in 1987, when Jacques Israelievitch, who was then the concertmaster, left to join the Toronto Symphony,” says Halen. “At the time, I was third chair violin with Houston. I didn’t get the concertmaster position, but eventually I did get hired for the number two position in St. Louis in 1991. Then in 1995, I became concertmaster here.”

Being concertmaster

For Halen, being concertmaster for the SLSO are both a musical blessing and a deep responsibility.

“When you lead an orchestra, it leaves an indelible mark you can draw on in the future,” explains Halen. “It feels like driving a great sports car. If you really have that goal of becoming a concertmaster, the earlier you can get up in front of an orchestra, the better. Because in addition to the joy of playing and leading other great musicians, you have some serious duties. You have to learn the balance between being a facilitator — taking on the role of the first officer for the conductor and conveying his outlook to the other musicians — and  expressing your own opinions in a strong way when you’re asked to do that as well. It’s really a lifelong learning curve.”

As Halen’s tenure as concertmaster at the SLSO has developed, he has also had the opportunity to take the spotlight to perform featured roles. And in January 2011, Halen finally undertook the featured role in what he regards as the epitome of violin pieces — Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

“I’ve done over 20 different featured solo pieces over the past 22 years with the Symphony,” states Halen. “And it’s certainly an incredible feeling to be supported by the sound of the orchestra. I have to say, the Brahms Violin Concerto, which I finally performed at Powell Hall in January of last year, is a very special piece for me. That’s what I played when I first auditioned here. In my mind, violinists need to stand at the alter of that concerto. It’s just such a brilliant work.”

Leaving a legacy

In addition to his playing, Halen is trying to spend more time teaching. In addition to private teaching, Halen is the artistic director of the nearby Innsbrook Institute as well as the Missouri River Festival of the Arts in Boonville, and also teaches at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.

“I’m doing so much more teaching now,” says Halen. “When I taught before, it was sort of guessing a bit in terms of what the musicians I was working with really needed. Now, I have enough experience in both playing and teaching that it’s easier for me to understand what really can help them grow as artists. When you think about it, once the music stops, that’s your only legacy. It’s most important that the next person you’ve taught carry on the tradition — and play beautifully.”

When asked to name some of the most promising younger musicians he works with in the Symphony, Halen immediately came up with several names — among them Celeste Golden Boyer, the SLSO’s second associate concertmaster, and Erin Schreiber, assistant concertmaster. The Beacon will be writing about these musicians in coming months. Here’s what Boyer had to say about working with Halen in the SLSO:

“I feel so lucky to play under David’s leadership,” Boyer says. “His playing is stunning, as we all know. I sit directly behind David on the stage, and so I feel like I have the best seat in the house to hear his breathtaking concertmaster solos each week! David has so much knowledge and experience to share with us — he always seems to know the perfect solution to bring us together as a section, but he also encourages each player's individual artistry by listening to our ideas and treating us with the utmost kindness and respect. After every concert, you'll see him making his way off the stage, smiling and thanking each of us for how well we played.”

Now beginning his third decade with the SLSO, David Halen is firmly established as a virtuoso musician, a highly respected Concertmaster and a distinguished teacher and a concert series programmer. For Halen, it all comes down to finding the right balance.

“When I look back, I wouldn’t change a thing,” concludes Halen. “I’ve worked really hard over the years to find a creative balance in my work as a musician, and to also find a balance between that work and my family — my son and my wife. In the end, that’s what it’s all about … balance in your life.”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.