Shame-faced recording industry tycoons, well aware their groovy disks were draining the incomes of musicians needing live gigs, eventually sought penance. To put more dough in musicians’ pockets, the industry began funding community orchestras.
That, according to Dr. Leon Burke III, is how the University City Symphony Orchestra, as well as countless other such groups nationwide, got their start.
In University City, however, two other driving forces were pianist Lily Kaufman, wife of the municipality’s longtime mayor, Nathan Kaufman, and Norman Goldberg, owner of the legendary Baton Music Co. and MMB Music.
The U. City orchestra they helped found, presently in its 55th season and one of the area’s older such community groups, is now led by Burke. He came onboard 21 years ago.
Fittingly, in a city known for connections and roots, Burke took the place of his mentor, Dr. William (Willie) Schatzkamer, the U. City group’s founding conductor. An educator, pianist and Juilliard-trained musician, Schatzkamer taught music for three-plus decades at Washington University.
One of his adult piano students happened to be U. City symphony co-founder Lily Kaufman, who likewise gave piano lessons. From the symphony’s other co-founder, Goldberg, youngster Burke would buy musical scores.
Yet beyond coincidence and shared goals, it’s the tale of 6-foot-4 Burke’s untiring leadership – all while still simultaneously juggling a half-dozen music-related jobs, including funeral organist – that’s as richly layered and often, as surprising, as the music the U. City orchestra presents..
A Prodigy’s Life
First off, Burke was a child prodigy. At age 3, he could recite every TV commercial he’d ever seen. With an IQ tested between a gifted-level 144 and what educators labeled “an extraordinary genius” rating of 160-something, in third grade he started high school chemistry. Yet pondering oxidation reduction reactions didn’t exactly make him teacher’s pet.
“I had to study these things on my own,” he says. Race was another factor.
“You’re black. You’re too young,” teachers would tell him.
Undeterred, Burke would read more, aided by the fact that since his mother, Angela, was a librarian at Washington University, he received on-campus library privileges. His dad, Leon Burke Jr., a special-education teacher and eventually, a job-placement consultant, stressed the value of education, too.
As a teen, Burke enrolled at Clayton’s Mark Twain Summer Institute for gifted youngsters. He took both science (“I wanted to design spaceships”) and music. For the latter, Schatzkamer was his teacher.
Forever after, the musical backdrop of Burke’s life would be expanded. Although raised on jazz recordings by a dad who’d played saxophone at Sumner High School, the younger Burke fell in love with the classics, with Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky and others, whose recordings he bought and whose scores he rapturously followed.
As a requirement for camp graduation, Schatzkamer made each student conduct “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Burke excelled, to the extent that Schatzkamer told him: “You have a flair for conducting.”
“Thank you,” an energized Burke replied, then dashed to Washington University, where he proceeded to devour the contents of “every book on orchestral conducting, on conducting period. I read them from cover to cover.”
While the Burke family lived in the city, Leon attended McBride High School. The family moved not long before the school was shuttered in the mid-‘70s, to unincorporated St. Louis County. There, Burke went to John Burroughs School.
With a straight-A average, perfect SAT exam scores, steady rounds of piano lessons, classes and a position as keyboardist for the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, Burke also had a singular accomplishment. He had composed and orchestrated his own symphony, which Leonard Slatkin, then with the youth orchestra and later, maestro of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, had him conduct.
Heady stuff, for sure, but not enough to keep Burke in St. Louis, at least not then. Instead, he went to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and earned a doctorate in music at University of Kansas. As a Fulbright Fellow, he studied in Paraguay.
All this despite warnings, perhaps to test his resolve, from mentor Schatzkamer: Don’t go into music. It’s a terrible life. You don’t make money.
Now, fast-forward to today. Married 25 years to Olivia Burke and with three daughters, Burke has on his resume, along with the non-profit University City symphony: conductor of the Belleville Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, assistant director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, choir director at Kirkwood’s Eliot Unitarian, a cover conductor for the St. Louis Symphony, voice and music teacher and, not long ago, bass soloist for Handel’s “Messiah” in Harvard, Mass.
Oh, he also plays piano and organ, and sings at weddings and funerals.
Is this the “terrible life,” worsened by dwindling funding sources and greater need for grants and donations, that he’d been warned about? Not at all, laughs Burke, at which point he’s out the door, relishing the thought of four hours of teaching, to be followed by a two-hour rehearsal.