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The American Orchestra: Meeting Fans at Blueberry Hill

As part of The American Orchestra series, Eddie Silva of the St. Louis Symphony recently met up with fans Jerry and Shirley Emanuel—who regularly accompany the orchestra to New York and Carnegie Hall—in a St. Louis hot spot, filled with local tradition and color, to chat about the couple's unexpected discovery of the city and its symphony orchestra.

You can find your thrill at Blueberry Hill. If there's a place where "everybody" goes, at least during some stage of their St. Louis experience, Blueberry Hill is that place. The name itself defines it. A love of rock 'n' roll—whether old school or new—pervades, with the best jukebox in town (Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, The Temptations, The Beatles, The Clash, Dolly Parton, and Rihanna are all there). Chuck Berry played a monthly concert in the basement performance space, the Duck Room, for many years until age slowed him down. Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards is generally in the top five whenever "Best St. Louisan" is voted on in newspaper or magazine polls. The Loop, where Blueberry Hill is found, was a dingy, deteriorating neighborhood before Edwards pitted his entrepreneurial acumen against urban decay, beginning in the 1970s.

Blueberry Hill, St. Louis
Blueberry Hill, St. Louis 

Jerry and Shirley Emanuel live nearby, so I thought it would be an ideal spot to meet with the two devoted St. Louis Symphony fans to ask them about that devotion. And who doesn't love cheap, tasty sandwiches and Journey on the jukebox at lunchtime?

Surprisingly, this is the Emanuels' first time at Blueberry Hill. Jerry looks around him at the giant reproductions of vintage baseball-card images of Stan Musial and Lou Brock; the cabinets of memorabilia from The Beatles, Howdy Doody, Hopalong Cassady, and Pee-wee Herman ...; and then the animal heads on the walls, including a faux hippo. "We never really realized," Jerry says with a note of awe in his voice.

I first met Jerry and Shirley when they were members of the symphony-sponsored "The Rest Is Noise Discussion Group," which was held at another pub, Schlafly Tap Room, a few years ago. (We like pubs.) About 20 people met every week to listen to music and talk about Alex Ross's narrative of the 20th century through music. Since that time, I've seen the Emanuels regularly at Powell Hall. Their habit is to attend Friday concerts, and then listen to the Saturday-night concerts live on St. Louis Public Radio— (including a sneak preview of The Firebird for the March 3 concert at Powell Hall).

The Emanuels are recent St. Louis transplants, moving here from Washington, DC, after retiring from the Library of Congress in 2004. Why St. Louis? "One day we just thought of St. Louis," Shirley says. "And we thought if there wasn't enough to do here, Chicago wasn't far away. It makes for a fantastic retirement to have the St. Louis Symphony available to us," says Shirley. "We never imagined that it would be this much of an experience."

"We had known about the St. Louis Symphony, but it was just a coincidence that David Robertson began his tenure as music director in 2005," Jerry adds. "Now whenever anyone asks us 'Why St. Louis?' we say, 'It's symphonic heaven.' We didn't know we'd be getting so excited about the orchestra," Shirley says. They traveled to New York to hear the St. Louisans perform when Robertson conducted Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 2008. In 2006, they were at Carnegie Hall for the symphony's performances of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls and Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem. There was another memorable New York moment on that tour. "We flew on the same flight that the orchestra and Darryl Strawberry were on." ("The Straw" has a home near St. Louis.)

Jerry and Shirley Emmanuel and St. Louis Cardinals legends
St. Louis Symphony fans Jerry and Shirley Emmanuel | St. Louis Cardinals legends on the wall of Blueberry Hill  

"The St. Louis Symphony going to Carnegie Hall is extremely important," says Shirley. "My empathy is for the players—and when they play Carnegie Hall, they are always well reviewed, sometimes enthusiastically reviewed. It must be like a shot of adrenaline for them."

The American Orchestra: St. Louis Symphony
March 10, St. Louis Symphony 

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