It is hard to imagine a time when there was not an SLSYO. Still, when I arrived in St. Louis for my first year as the assistant conductor in 1968, my biggest shock was discovering that no such organization existed; there was no orchestra for young musicians independent of their schools. I decided that forming a youth orchestra should be a priority. With the help of the board of the parent organization, we were up and running in 1970.
There were more than 500 students who auditioned for that first season. 125 made it into the orchestra. The very first piece we rehearsed was the Stokowski orchestration of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. It remains my most vivid memory of the 27 years I spent in St. Louis. A sweeter sound had never been heard, at least to my ears.
Bachanalia begins with the opening eight bars of the Passacaglia, and from there, the piece goes into some bizarre places. At each turn of phrase, there are harmonic surprises, unusual orchestral devices, and several quotes from the German master. Near the end, most of the musicians get to play something from their favorite piece by Bach, resulting in a mash-up of sonic mayhem.
After an abrupt cut-off from the chaos, an offstage piano is heard playing one of the most familiar pieces every student learns. While this is occurring, a few instruments intone the notes B-flat, A-natural, C-natural, and B-natural, musically spelling out the composer’s name in German, while the rest of the orchestra whispers the letters. The piece comes to a gentle end, with the sound of air blown through the wind instruments and the strings breathing in and out.
Bachanalia is dedicated to the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, past, present, and future. The performance time is about five minutes.