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"Music chose me," Ward Stare says.
At 5, he became entranced with Beethoven. At 10, he earned his first paycheck as a musician. At 16, he graduated from high school and entered Juilliard. At 18, he became principal trombone with one of the world's top opera companies. At 22, he made his conducting debut with a professional ensemble.
And at 25, he was named resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He makes his debut with the Symphony in a free outdoor concert of familiar favorites (even if you can't name the composers, you'll recognize the tunes) Thursday night on Art Hill on the eve of the annual Balloon Glow.
Stare grew up in Rochester, N.Y., in a music-loving family. His father, Daniel, is a retired chemical engineer and amateur trombonist. His mother, Susan, is an elementary school teacher. His younger sister Stephanie grew up playing string bass and piano.
He started taking piano lessons at age 5. Little League took over for a few years, but at 9 he began trombone lessons and proved a natural.
His father played trombone in a uniformed firefighters' band, marching in parades. After the younger Stare had been playing just a year, the band had a vacancy and let him march — right in the middle of the front row for symmetry — and paid him $20 a parade.
"For a 10-year-old boy, that was living large," Stare said.
Music became his life. He finished high school early and went to the Juilliard School at 16. After a year and a half, he left for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
"Everything was sort of on a truncated timetable," he said. "But I was gainfully employed at a world-class opera house, the second-largest in the country."
Everett Zlatoff-Mirsky, who was concertmaster of the Lyric when Stare hired on, was concerned about how such a young player would fare as leader of a seasoned brass section.
"Ward got the ultimate (accolade): 'He's doing the job,'" Zlatoff-Mirsky said. Stare was "very mature, and a fantastic musician."
With a 26-week opera season, Stare's two other interests — conducting and composing — beckoned.
Four years ago, Stare realized that there was nothing holding him back, that he had the time, the resources and the opportunity. Admitted to a small college in Paris, he lived there for almost the entire off-season, studying privately, working on his French and getting hooked on conducting. He returned the following summer for master classes in conducting in Finland, Moscow, London and the south of France.
"I call it my extreme a la carte education," Stare said.
Armed with videotapes of himself conducting orchestras, he applied to the Aspen Music Festival's American Academy of Conducting. Studying there during the summers of 2006 and last year, he won both top prizes. Last year, he was the League of American Orchestras' Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles
Philharmonic. This year, he'll assist the Lyric's music director, Sir Andrew Davis, with two operas.
Stare played six full seasons at the Lyric.
"When I retired, at the age of 25, I was still the youngest person in the rchestra," Stare said.
The Symphony has expanded the role of assistant conductor to create a new position — resident conductor — for Stare. In addition to leading the Forest Park concert and holiday concerts, Stare will conduct many concerts for students and serve as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.
He'll also assist music director David Robertson in special projects.
Next season, Stare will lead the orchestra in some subscription concerts. Meanwhile, Stare, who is single, is taking some time to get to know the city and hopes to catch some Cardinals games.
One thing he's not doing? Playing the trombone.
"It's in my closet," he said. "I see it each morning when I pick out a shirt."