I met David Stahl 13 years ago, but it seems like yesterday. Having moved to Charleston a few months earlier to become the director of choral activities at the College of Charleston, I was auditioning for the part-time position of CSO chorus director. Apparently, I was the fifth candidate to audition that day. David was clearly tired when I walked in, and his aura was a bit intimidating. As I began, he casually watched and listened, then suddenly sprang up and watched me from the side, eyes blazing and full of life. I thought then, “This man is a force of nature … and I think I’m gonna get the job!” Next thing I knew, I indeed was offered the position, and I subsequently asked David what had impressed him enough to spring to his feet in the audition. He said, “I liked your upbeats.” Armed with that knowledge, I began a 12-year association with Stahl during which time I had the great fortune of preparing more than 25 major choral/orchestral works with him.
David had a truly operatic personality, and working with him was hugely fulfilling. Always a dreamer and a big-picture thinker, David and I took on works together that challenged our forces in every way imaginable. Because David was not necessarily one to be bothered with minor details, there was more than one occasion that I went into performances biting my nails to the quick. Somehow, though, David’s natural ability and sheer will and charisma almost always turned the performances into remarkable experiences. As Munich-based soprano Sandra Moon told me in a recent conversation, David’s way was almost magical. You weren’t quite sure how or even why something came together. It just did.
For all of my wonderful recollections about David the musician, I must say my fondest memories are of watching him in his role of family man. David had a major career, one that saw him flying back and forth to and from Munich several times a year. But he went to great ends, with the amazing help of the love of his life Karen, to make sure that his family always came first. His youngest daughter Anna and my daughter Kiri are one year apart in school, and both attended Ashley River Elementary. Thus, my wife and I attended countless school events either with Karen and David. Watching David be a doting dad, all the while trying to be low-key and not “be the star” was a real lesson to me in how to be a public figure. Byron and Anna, and his older daughter Sonya, who was out of school by the time I moved to town, were his absolute pride and joy. David loved being the great maestro, make no mistake about that. But he loved his family so much more.
My friendship with David extended beyond our association with the CSO and CSO Chorus. There were countless discussions about our kids, and he served as a real mentor to me in more ways than I can articulate. My father had passed away just prior to my arrival in Charleston, and I think it’s fair to say that my friendship with David helped to fill that void. There was a kindred spirit component to our friendship. We were both huge sports fans and saw eye-to-eye on politics and spirituality, which led to wonderful conversations. If one of our favorite political figures gave a great speech, I knew my phone was going to ring (or, later, a text arrive). Or, if my beloved Arkansas Razorbacks won a big game, again, my phone was going to ring with an enthusiastic congratulations.
To say I miss David is a gross understatement. I still cannot truly believe he is gone. But his legacy lives on. Charleston now stands as one of the great arts centers in the United States. It’s often called the cultural capital of the South. David Stahl played a primal role in helping the city attain that stature. I am humbled to be able to honor him and his legacy in our performance of Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem.
Tribute to Maestro David Stahl. Sat. April 16, 8 p.m. Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain St. charlestonsymphonychorus.org