Way back in 1902, Columbia and RCA Victor were locked in a struggle to gain recording dominance of opera music. This was the highest prestige market, and recorded works commanded a premium, as the artists were very expensive to sign, and reluctant to put their voices out there for the general masses. Victor named its offerings Red Seal, and charged twice as much as for other recordings. The product was, perhaps predictably, seldom a best-seller, although Enrico Caruso is credited with history’s first million selling record, again, in 1902. Victor did establish, with Red Seal, a bar for production excellence that lasted for the next century.
The St Louis Symphony Orchestra recorded for RCA Red Seal beginning in 1935, using the Kiel Opera House as its primary recording space. In 1949, the orchestra signed with Columbia’s competitive Masterworks label.
By 1956, unsatisfied with the acoustical quality of Kiel Opera House (too large, and carpeted, which absorbed too much sound), Columbia went in search of a better place to record the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. in March of that year, a full orchestral rehearsal of the auditorium space at St Louis House was conducted, and the recording director for Columbia deemed the results “first rate.” The construction of wood, plaster and glass, with a 28 foot high ceiling and maple floors floating on a sleeper piering system gave the room a quality that let sounds “die of their own accord”, a quality in sound known as decay.
The St Louis House, formerly the German House, had long been associated with musical production, and was the home of the Midwest Opera Association of St Louis.
Above – Opera notice from 1953
Right – Opera Advertisement from 1954
The Post Dispatch reported that the same lights used to illuminate St Louis House wrestling for television would be used while recording the orchestra, and that three long playing (LP) discs would be created that spring, for release in the fall.
A separate article treated the appearance of a “large group of determined looking men carrying violin cases and other bulky objects” whimsically. It pointed out that St Louis City Patrolman William O’Dell was ready for them. He had made many trips to the Kiel to hear the Symphony before, and was pleased to have them, in turn, come to him. The 24-year old officer was a trumpet player himself, and a record collector to boot. He was enthusiastic in his vigilance during the orchestra’s stay at St Louis House.
In January of 1957, the first reviews of the three records began to appear. The Post Dispatch music editor, Thomas B. Sherman said the efforts to relocate had paid off, as the LPs possessed “extraordinary resonance, a liveness and presence that make for a high degree of acoustical effectiveness”. It nitpicked a bit with one piece, Ravel’s “La Valse”, stating that the sounds were “prolonged past what should have been their normal resonance” . It complained that there was a “hanging on and spreading out” of the percussion instruments, but not to a disturbing degree”. Although he wasn’t knocked out by the Ravel, the performance of Debussy’s “La Mer” did the trick, with “the wealth of color lavishly applied and the balance and blending such that every detail plays its part in conveying an impression of varying degrees of depth and of surface iridescence.” The review goes to cover the Chopin piano pieces, Respighi’s Rossiniana, the Colas-Breugon suite by Kabalevsky, and Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 1 in F Major in very favorable terms.
I do wonder what Mr Sherman, with his audiophile’s ear registering like a gourmet to food, would have thought of the timbre and ambience of my copy of Alice Cooper’s 1972 Warner Brothers recording of “School’s Out”, played on my Panasonic stereo of the mid-1970’s. Brutal, I’m sure.
Incidentally, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra was led by Vladimir Golschmann, who held the baton from 1931 to 1957. In his 1972 obituary, the New York Times wrote that “by the early 1950’s, Mr. Golschmann had become the dean of conductors of major American orchestras.”
But now the reviews are in, and it’s time to sell some superb quality vinyl.
Like our baseball heroes, Vladimir Golschmann would sign copies of the Symphony albums recorded in St Louis. He’s the man above to the right, with Columbia recording director Howard Scott. The three Colombia Masterworks albums collectively were called ‘The St Louis Sound’, which Famous Barr billed as a “New Hi-Fi Sensation”, “far beyond anything yet heard on records.” And to think we were using the place for televised wrestling!
St Louis House was touted as one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the world. Imagine the acoustics engineers who toil for the sound quality Jacob Heim, the buiding’s German immigrant designer, apparently got without much focused effort in 1928. Columbia’s marketing stated that “the St Louis House, with its mellow wood and plaster was the answer to an acoustical prayer.” You could purchase each of the three records for $3.98.
In November of 1957, the orchestra was back at St Louis House to record ballet music by Berlioz, the suite from Delibes’ ballet, “Sylvia”, and excerpts from his “Coppelia”, as well as the music score from the film “Red Shoes”. Prior to recording, a special concert was given of the pieces for members of the Symphony board at St Louis House.
In 1984, after a 34 year long break with RCA Red Seal, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra returned to its roster of stars. Morris Levin, a lawyer who had represented the Newspaper Guild since 1940 claimed that “the acoustics at St Louis House were better, all right, but that’s not why they got out of Kiel. The real reason was a labor dispute that started at KSD-TV and didn’t involve musicians at all”. This dispute involved the National Labor Relations Board and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and while it was getting argued, union stagehands refused to allow any electrician to touch anything in there. “That’s why the got out of Kiel to make the first ones. The sound was so much better at St Louis House that they went on making records there until they had Powell Hall to record in.”
Above is a photo from a recording session at the German House/St Louis House in 1963, under direction of Andre Previn. Note the west facing windows in the background. These are what you see when you look east at the building today, although they’re covered in a heavy wire mesh now. It must have been a lovely scene then. The orchestra recorded Copland’s “The Red Pony” and Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” for Colombia. This was the first recording by the Orchestra since Golschmann had left six years earlier.
In early June of 1974, when the Lafayette Square neighborhood was in the early stages of its rebirth and certainly not white tie and tails about anything, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin came to Lafayette Park to hold a free concert. He conducted Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” the overture from Beethoven’s Symphony No. *, Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus”, and “Blue Danube” and Strauss Sr.’s “Radetsky March”. Note that “all the works had a German flavor to them” as Slatkin said. “We’ve never played in Lafayette Park, and we’re looking forward to it”.
Thanks to research sources, including:
Discograhy of American Historical Recordings; Columbia Master Book #1; Tim Brooks, Editor; https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/resources/detail/102
Red Seal Was A Mark Of Quality In Records; LA Times; Ronald Sobel; January 18, 1990