The news of David Stahl’s untimely passing the Sunday before last hit me very hard, as it did so many others; I haven’t grieved so deeply for anybody since my dad died. I wrote about him often, and we still remained friends even though I had pointed out some of the Charleston Symphony’s performance flaws in print. We often spoke German together whenever we met.
But far beyond that, I owe David a huge debt of personal gratitude. Both directly and indirectly, he greatly enhanced the quality of my life — and not just through my regular attendance at CSO concerts. In fact, he helped direct the course of my life after I returned home to Charleston two decades ago at a time of a grim professional crisis in my life.
The healing process began when I joined the CSO Chorus in 1995. My contacts there led directly to a wonderful job at the now-closed Millennium Music. While I’d always been a choral singer, David and his orchestra gave me my first crack at performing the big choral-orchestral repertoire, reinforced by the chances I got to sing with the CSOC for Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt during Spoleto. Over eight seasons, David was my teacher and unofficial mentor, helping me to get to know many of the greatest masterpieces from the inside out and showing me, by example, what it takes to make world-class music. My stint with the CSO Chorus also led directly to my opportunity to sing professionally at St. Michael’s Church, a position I still hold.
As you can well imagine, working with David helped me to gain the knowledge, insight, and confidence I needed to become a music writer, and his warm personal support and advocacy of my efforts were instrumental in getting me established locally as a legitimate critic. That, in turn, was my springboard to getting published nationally and gaining an international readership and reputation. David helped me in many ways to find my ultimate niche in life. But by the time I got around to writing to tell him that, it was too late.
But this tribute is hardly restricted to just my own personal David Stahl story. I’ve heard from dozens of local musicians and fans and friends whose lives David touched in deep and wonderful ways. We all know that David’s memory will live on in our hearts. Read on, and learn some of the reasons why just about everybody he knew will never forget him.
Music is nothing but a series of black symbols on paper without the talented and hard-working musicians who turn them into living, breathing music. And David never forgot that. While he was often quite firm about what he expected from his players, he was never the archetypal martinet conductor. He never put himself “above” them in any way.
As longtime CSO flutist Regina Helcher Yost recalls, “When my father passed away, David came up to me in the very next rehearsal and hugged me, speaking of my loss with genuine kindness and concern. That was David. He really cared about the CSO musicians’ lives and wanted to be a part of them. If someone got engaged or married or had children, he always congratulated them warmly. He was more than just a conductor and a great musician. He was a friend.”
Another aspect of David’s work with his musicians was the way he actively mentored them, monitoring their development as orchestral players and encouraging the best of them to “spread their wings” (as David often put it) and move on to bigger and better-paying orchestras. Many of the nation’s finest young conservatory grads — aware of David’s reputation — flocked to audition for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. While nobody expected to get rich playing for the CSO, they knew that the Holy City was one of the best places to learn the basic orchestral repertoire and hone their skills under the baton of a world-class conductor. And sure enough, right from the start, CSO veterans, once they felt they were “finished” musicians, began to take what they had learned under David and win top spots with respected major metro ensembles.
Perhaps Stahl’s biggest success story in that regard was violinist and former CSO Concertmaster Alexander Kerr, whose artistic journey took him to the exalted position of Concertmaster with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, regarded by many to be Europe’s finest ensemble. Kerr, now a world-famous soloist, chamber player, and Indiana University professor, recalled his 1993 audition for the post of CSO concertmaster. After three seemingly endless rounds of playing previously assigned music, he finally met David face-to-face for the final part of the audition. David asked him if he knew Mozart’s violin concertos and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, then picked movements from them at random and asked Kerr to play as much as he could of them from memory. Then he handed him the score to Strauss’s Don Juan and said sternly, “Here’s your sight-reading test. You have 15 minutes to practice.”
“Boy, was I mad,” Kerr remembers. “Did this guy realize that pulling these pieces back from the recesses of my memory wasn’t just whistling Dixie? But I duly practiced for 15 minutes and played the audition of my life. ‘Take that!’ I thought as I played.”
He adds, “After more than 12 grueling hours of frantic fiddling — in 95-degree temperatures while wearing a black wool suit — I was finally offered the job. He never doubted me again and never stopped supporting me tirelessly from that day forward. Thank you, David. Thank you for my life.”
Pianist Enrique Graf feels very lucky to have known David. Over the years, he played more than 10 piano concertos with the CSO and recorded three of them. “He was the ideal partner to play concertos with,” says Graf, a College of Charleston artist-in-residence. “It was always easy. He listened openly first, then we exchanged a few ideas or suggestions, and we were done. We didn’t even have to look at each other. The music flowed, and we were together.”
Graf adds, “With many conductors, there are disagreements, power struggles, and temper tantrums, but never with David. He was always humble, respectful, and confident: a rare and wonderful combination for a conductor.”
CofC composition professor Edward Hart recalls a fond memory from 1998, when he and his wife happened to be booked on the same plane to Europe with Stahl. “Of course,” Hart says, “any self-respecting composer would use this ‘captive audience’ scenario to try to push his own music on a great conductor. But much to my surprise, it was David who came to sit with us and suggest that the CSO perform one of my works. Thus began a long and fruitful relationship with my hometown orchestra, which has led to opportunities both here and abroad, including a commission for my only piano concerto, which the CSO performed in 2003 and recorded in 2005.”
Hart adds, “He gave me, an unknown young Charleston composer, the opportunity to have my works played by world-class musicians. I will always be grateful for his generosity.”
Our maestro had a pronounced penchant for the unusual and offbeat as well. Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs, cites one of David’s all-time favorite projects: the time he conducted Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. A collaboration between Piccolo, the CSO, and Charleston Ballet Theatre, it was staged under the 1,400-year-old Angel Oak. “I recall the experience fondly,” Moryl says. “Performing Stravinsky, with dancers, under an ancient oak tree came naturally to him.”
Concertgoers got mostly a rear-view look at David in action on the podium. That was enough for all of us to experience his exuberant conducting style: his athletic stance, sweeping gestures, slashing baton, and the spontaneous “body dance” that he no doubt picked up from his mentor Leonard Bernstein. For most conductors, body language is a major tool for communicating mood and musical intent to their players. But an orchestra or chorus gets to see not only the conductor’s baton and body language — but his face — and several musicians commented on what David’s face did for them, in rehearsal or in concert.
CofC grad Geronimo Oyenard, now a successful orchestral violinist, was often tapped to perform as a “sub” with the CSO. Oyenard credits Stahl for doing much to prepare him for his developing career and speaks warmly of David’s personal kindness to him. But, for a young student joining an orchestra of pros for the first time, David could inspire terror as well. “To this day,” he says, “I remember his occasional ‘look of death’ if I forgot to put on my mute or started to drag.” Oyenard recalls once, after he made an audible mistake in a performance, “sitting petrified as [David] exited the stage afterwards — fuming, huffing, and puffing.” But the invitations to sub kept coming, and a young musician gained his most valuable early experience in the process.
Other musicians saw different things in Stahl’s uncannily expressive face. Joe Gamboa, a chorus member, says, “As David conducted, he looked straight into our eyes, fixing us with a look that transmitted the very soul of the music, and that always drew passionate singing from us. He would often sing along as he conducted, and you could always follow his phrasing just by watching his mouth. Singing for David was always exhilarating and moving.”
Cellist Stuart Terry vividly remembers a CSO performance of Gustav Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 2, the so-called “Resurrection” symphony. “David told us in rehearsal that this performance was a personal tribute to his mother, on the anniversary of her death. She had loved the piece, and David had made sure she heard it one last time before she died,” Terry says. “Near the end of the piece, David was clearly wet in the eyes.”
Retired CofC composition professor David W. Maves was the CSO’s timpanist when Stahl came to Charleston for his first audition with his future orchestra. “I was amazed that he didn’t break and run screaming from that first rehearsal,” Maves says. “On the downbeat of the first work, (Wagner’s) Tristan prelude, all three cellos played a major, rather than a minor sixth. Oh, the look on his face … then, ‘F-natural, not F-sharp,’ he corrected, and began again … and the rest is history.”
Then there was Stahl’s fabled sense of humor. No rehearsal passed without him cracking some joke or making a wry observation. Megan Holland, the CSO’s former principal second violin, relates one of her fondest memories. “We were in rehearsal, and I made a mistake. David — ever the sports fan — immediately whipped out a yellow flag and threw it at me, yelling ‘Foul!’ It made my day.”
Former CSO music librarian Charmaine LeClair remembers a prank that the players pulled on him. “For our Halloween concert one year, while David was in Germany, one of the players sported a costume that included a wig that looked just like David’s very conspicuous mop of hair. A week later, we put a photo of the ‘David-double’ on the podium before his next rehearsal with us, even though we were a little nervous that David would take offense,” LeClair says. “But upon finding the photo, David got a total kick out of it, smiling and laughing. He chuckled about it for days.”
In rehearsals, Stahl almost always gave us little musicological or historical “mini-lectures” that invariably made whatever work we were doing seem more relevant to his musicians. Chorus member Chuck Bevers recalls, “In our rehearsal for the 2009 performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, David described Stoll’s Alley [a pedestrian walkway connecting Church and East Bay] as the likely original location of Catfish Row, the opera’s original scenario. He asked us to imagine ourselves there in the 1920s, peering at the harbor during the hurricane. So the next day, I found and walked Stoll’s Alley, and it helped to give me a kind of personal connection to the music that nothing else could’ve.”
Perhaps the deepest theme of Stahl’s life — one that many folks commented on — was his total devotion to his family and to Charleston, where his kids were born and raised. His Munich opera house people bugged him constantly about moving to Germany, but David would have none of it. Charleston was his home. Period.
One of the most telling (and moving) family-related reminiscences are those of Robert Taylor, CofC choral program director. Not only had Taylor, as director of the CSO Chorus, been a close musical collaborator, preparing choruses for David for more than a decade, but he had been one of David’s most intimate friends. When Taylor first arrived in Charleston, he had recently lost his father, and David immediately helped fill the void as a kind of surrogate “big brother.” David even called Taylor his “brother in law” in public, since they, at David’s urging, had bought Labrador puppies from the same breeder.
“The biggest impact David had on me came from watching him balance his professional life with being a good husband to Karen and a good father to Byron and Anna,” Taylor says. “I cannot tell you how many times David took the red-eye flight from Munich so that he could march off the plane straight to an event of either Anna’s or Byron’s. Once home, David wanted to simply be dad. David was certainly accustomed to being a star and was always gracious in that role. But above all, he wanted his kids to have a normal environment and made a concerted effort to see to it that that happened. As I said to him when I visited him for what turned out to be the final time in his hospital room, as much as I learned about conducting from David, the lessons I cherished most were how to put your family first. Always.”
David’s beloved wife, Karen, passed away four weeks before him. Their three children — Sonia, 29 (from a previous marriage), Byron, 20, and Anna, 16 — are now grieving the devastating loss of both parents. It is to them that we send our very deepest condolences.
But Stahl had yet another beloved child: the orchestra that he nurtured and transformed into a top-quality institution that put Charleston on the symphonic map. The CSO remains David’s primary legacy to the city he loved. And the most ironic element of the overall tragedy is the sad fact that the orchestra he gave us is ailing. Their season was canceled last spring, and the symphony has yet to be revived. The CSO has never had a viable financial plan and has bounced from crisis to crisis over the past decade, but the situation has never been so dire. At the same time, Charleston has failed to rally the collective will and determination to save one of its finest performing arts institutions. Shame on us for letting it happen, even in the face of the ongoing recession. It goes without saying that the best way we can honor this great man’s memory will be to act decisively as a community to preserve the wondrous orchestra that he gave us. I’m convinced that the collective will is there. Signs of it are everywhere. We must somehow harness it.
The CSO’s recent 75th anniversary concert galvanized more than 2,000 rabid orchestral fans. The stalwart CSO League has undertaken a number of initiatives and proposed others. A series of public forums on the issue were held last spring. There’s even a group of talented young music students who, under the leadership of 15-year-old Abby Kent, are performing a series of concerts in Mt. Pleasant to foster awareness of the CSO’s plight.
There are indications that part of the CSO’s season may yet be salvaged in the coming weeks, and, if that happens, their executive board needs to hire a seasoned financial manager, somebody with a proven fundraising track record. While they’re at it, why not engage a savvy cybergeek who can find ways to reach art lovers everywhere. Remember, President Obama swept into office on such a mass campaign, bankrolled by five and 10-dollar contributions from millions, and they did it via the internet. What about organizing a radio- or TV-a-thon? That’s how NPR raises hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in this state alone. Why not get our kids involved, with neighborhood leaflet/collection campaigns coordinated through local school boards? Folks have pooh-poohed such solutions as impractical, pie-in-the-sky thinking, but stranger ideas than those have worked before under different circumstances.
All of us who have spoken here — and many hundreds of others — will carry cherished memories of David to our own graves. But memories are no substitute for living, breathing orchestral music from a world-class orchestra, music that, if the CSO survives, will continue to be driven by David’s example and filled with his spirit.
So we simply must save our symphony, S.O.S. for short.
As hackneyed as it may sound, it succinctly expresses both the goal and the urgency of the situation. Let it inspire us to apply some good old American ingenuity to the problem, and then take determined action. We owe that to David.