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Bassoon Brigade To Honor The Memory Of One Young Player And, Perhaps, Inspire Another

Christian Steiner

A St. Louis bassoon brigade is heading from Grand Center to Marissa, Ill., on Tuesday. Well, it was heading there on Feb. 4, but a forecast of snow and freezing rain put the planned trip off until Feb. 18.

Once in Marissa, the brigade will address a musical situation that began playing out in November following a St. Louis Symphony rehearsal of Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Peter Grimes.”

To understand the genesis of this brigade we have to track the career of internationally celebrated soprano Christine Brewer. Brewer lives in Lebanon, Ill., and began her operatic career in the chorus of Opera Theatre of St. Louis in the early 1980s.

Her working career, however, began teaching music to students at the Marissa Elementary School, the now-closed Lenzberg Elementary School and Marissa High School, where she graciously demurred when asked to coach the volleyball team.

The year-long Marissa experience stuck with her, however. And once her career took off into the stratosphere, she and her friend Nancy Wagner, who teaches in Marissa, came up with a 6th-grade geography program, “Where in the world is Mrs. Brewer?” That modest, pins-on-a-map (but increasingly international) exercise, initiated a decade ago, evolved into “Opera-tunity.”

In an email, Wagner talks about the development of the program:

“Christine started bringing members of the symphony down to Marissa with her when she would visit, and often brought back items and pictures from the different places she had been. She would bring coins, paper money, games, and once, she even brought dried seaweed from Japan for us to try!

“Then we started to get invitations to attend rehearsals at Powell Symphony Hall. So my 6th graders would travel by school bus to St. Louis and be treated like royalty once we got there! Most of them comment that it is the fanciest place that they have ever been to.

“Believe it or not, there are still students that get to see the Arch, Busch Stadium, and the Mississippi River for the very first time when we go to St. Louis for our symphony visit.”

In this “fanciest place,” the kids have the rare privilege of sitting in on closed rehearsals – most all of which involve their friend Brewer as a soloist. They also have the attention of the maestro, David Robertson.

Brewer is not in a regular subscription concert with the orchestra this year, so Robertson, a devotee of “Opera-tunity,” a polymathic genius and a mensch, invited the students for “Peter Grimes.” This towering masterpiece by Benjamin Britten is rough going musically and emotionally for grown-ups. Interestingly, the Marissa students have absorbed such operatic complexities and aren’t afraid to articulate them.

Brewer tells of the time she brought the children to Powell Hall for the third act of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure.” Brunnhilde, sung by Brewer, is punished by confinement by her father, chief-god Wotan, sung by bass-baritone Alan Held, to a remote fire-ringed rock. After rehearsal some of the kids told Held, in so many words, that his character is a jerk, and that it was unfair that Wotan should punish Brunnhilde for doing what she thought was right.

Held told the boys and girls that clearly they had been indoctrinated by the person representing Brunnhilde’s side of this disagreement, namely Mrs. Brewer. And so it goes with this segment of the opera audience of the future, thanks to Brewer, thanks to David Robertson. But the inspiring narrative doesn’t stop at that rock. It continues magnificently.

No Saxophones

Austin Gilley
Credit Provided by Nancy Wagner
Austin Gilley

After the rehearsal, Austin Gilley, 11, who plays saxophone in the Marissa Elementary School band, asked the maestro if there were a saxophone in the Peter Grimes score. Robertson said no. Austin, the son of Stacey Gilley and Brandon Gilley, volunteered that although he plays the saxophone, the instrument he truly wanted to learn and to play is the bassoon. The Marissa band room contains no such instrument — yet.

Robertson responded with characteristic generosity. Would it be OK with the school and the band director if he bought the school a bassoon? Indeed, the school answered, it would be very much OK. Robertson purchased the instrument.

On Tuesday, the entire bassoon section of the orchestra will head to Marissa to meet with the students and donate the brand new bassoon. For now, Austin Gilley will be its player.

If that isn’t heartwarming enough, consider this. The bassoon will be given in memory of Andrew “Drew” Thompson. Thompson was the symphony’s exceptionally talented bassoon-contrabassoon player who died at age 27 in mid-October. Brewer said Thompson’s mother, Jackie Stilwell, is sending her son’s first bassoon instruction book to Austin. 

In addition to Robertson and Brewer there are three key members of the bassoon brigade. They are principal bassoon Andrew Cuneo; assistant principal Andrew Gott; and Felicia Foland, who’s enjoyed a long and distinguished career with the orchestra.

Who knows? A bassoon virtuoso just may be warming up an hour of so southeast of St. Louis, thanks to extraordinary and quite inspiring lyrical expressions of human kindness and musical generosity.

A tribute fund in honor of Drew Thompson has been established by his friends in the orchestra. Proceeds will be used for the benefit of young musicians who’ve played in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.