With its soaring domed ceiling, Baroque wall accents and red velvet seats, the stage at Powell Hall makes a handsome backdrop for an impromptu jam session between two violin virtuosos. Bows lifted, they tease out harmonies and build to a crescendo in the acoustic marvel.
It’s an impressive performance, especially considering it’s the first time they have played that particular piece together. And it’s even more remarkable that these accomplished violinists — Angie Smart, a first violinist with the St. Louis Symphony, and Theo Bockhorst, a co-concertmaster with the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra — are mother and son.
Finally lowering their bows, Smart and Bockhorst immediately begin bantering about their proficiency.
“The first piece I remember actually performing was ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and my mom was up there on stage with me,” Bockhorst recalls. “She had all the hard parts. I didn’t even have to use the bow, just my hand on the violin for two notes. I remember being utterly terrified walking on the stage.”
“I remember it, I remember the color of your face. You were white as a ghost,” Smart chimes in. “I really felt for you with those two notes.”
The reminiscing continues.
“I just listened to my mom playing the melody casually, and then it was suddenly time for me to play my two notes. My two outstanding notes. Didn’t I play it wrong?” Bockhorst asks Smart.
“Everybody plays ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ wrong,” Smart offers.
“I was four, to my defense,” he replies.
“Yeah, I think everyone forgave you,” she laughs.
The pair recall a few more details about Bockhorst’s ill-fated debut — the stage fright, the audience, the sounds.
Today, Bockhorst, 16, can see how he’s following in his mother’s footsteps, becoming just as enamored with a beautiful violin as Smart had. Like Smart, Bockhorst has immersed himself in music, appreciating every note and every movement
His face lights up as he describes a piece that the youth orchestra is currently performing — “The Moldau” by Bedřich Smetana — about a river in the Czech countryside. He hears the notes as a story. “You can almost feel water churning around you until the river’s grand opening into the sea. It’s a really beautiful piece,” Bockhorst says.
The teenager is pursuing his own career in music, and he wouldn’t mind landing a coveted spot with the St. Louis Symphony someday. Bockhorst has been a member of the Missouri All-State Orchestra for two years and a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra since eighth grade. He also attended the Community Music School at Webster University for three years where he made it to the quarterfinals of Fischoff, the nation’s largest chamber music competition.
This is the life he wants, but he admits that the training can be intense.
“Several times, I’ve actually wanted to quit because you don’t suddenly get better the next day from practicing,” Bockhorst says. But Smart has helped him learn that practice is key, and it turns out that he loves the challenge. “It’s actually fun to me to see the improvement, not day by day, but over time, performance to performance as I improve and practice every day.”
Bockhorst’s school, Clayton High School, has been supportive of his rehearsal needs, offering practice spaces and a modified schedule. The violinist is grateful for the support from the school and from the musicians in his life.
“The thing about music is that the earlier you decide to pursue it, the better your career will turn out to be. Once you have a set vision of what you want to be, the faster you can get on it,” Bockhorst says. “It’s [about] sort of starting to understand what it takes and the people who inspire me to do this telling me, ‘This is what you need to do to be a musician.’”
Smart is one of those musicians who inspires Bockhorst. Just like her son, Smart had an early ear for music, beginning violin lessons at age six. However, her excitement truly flourished when she fell in love with the instrument as a teenager after a teacher introduced her to the recordings of Jascha Heifetz. “His sound was unlike anybody else’s,” she insists. “There was something about it that I found hypnotic and, I just… I loved it. I felt so much passion for that sound, and I’ve chased it my whole life,” she confesses.
Perhaps, then, it was fate that chased her to St. Louis. After all, the first CD Smart ever purchased was a recording of the St. Louis Symphony for her father. Even then, she was drawn to this top-tier orchestra. “I thought it was beautiful and my dad did, too. I knew about [former music director and conductor laureate] Leonard Slatkin and I knew that a position with this incredible symphony was one of the prized jobs in the US.” she says.
Smart moved from England to the United States to study at several universities, culminating in a master’s degree at Rice University. She earned her spot with the St. Louis Symphony in 1998 and now shares the stage from time to time with her son — something they both appreciate as a bit of a novelty. Bockhorst’s interest in the violin had surprised Smart, but she quickly realized his enthusiasm and nurtured it.
“If it wasn’t for the inspiration of my mom telling me every single day to practice my violin, I would not be at the place where I am now,” acknowledges Bockhorst. “Because hearing that she practiced at my age for twice the amount of time that I do right now is just piles of motivation for me to end up in a similar position to where she is.”
Smart’s encouragement shows, as Bockhorst already has won several competitions locally and nationally. But the ensemble performance is what Bockhorst craves. He and the youth orchestra recently shared the stage with their adult counterparts at the annual Forest Park concert, playing to an audience of more than twenty thousand. It’s something he’d like to continue as he moves into the next stage of his career.
“I got to experience what it’s like to have complete control over the music and understand the way an orchestra sounds together, that everybody there knows exactly what they’re doing,” Bockhorst muses. “It was an amazing experience for me.”
It’s something that both Bockhorst and Smart share and appreciate, and there’s nowhere they’d rather do it than in St. Louis.
“There’s simply an unbelievable amount of music happening in St. Louis,” Smart raves. “If you just dig a little bit, you will find this wealth of music and art.”
“I can find no reason why you would not want to get on a plane and come and live here right away,” she continues. “And I say that sincerely because there is everything here — in the art scene, in terms of education, in terms of food, in terms of culture, in terms of sports. I mean, we have it all in an affordable midsize city.”
Smart and Bockhorst gingerly return their violins to their cases. Powell Hall is silent, save for their footsteps. A few stage crew members smile to themselves, taking in the emotions this duo had stirred up with their performance.
This is the best version of a day at the office that this mother and son could ever imagine.
“I mean, let’s face it — we are both music nerds. We play music all day long, we listen to music, we discuss music all the time and it always comes back to violin, doesn’t it?” quips Smart.