Leon Burke III: Maestro at Multi-Tasking

 In Culture

If human energy could bounce, his would propel him sky-high. But when Dr. Leon Burke III’s multiplicity of earth-bound gigs/jobs beckoned, rest assured, he’d make certain his size 14A feet were firmly planted.

That’s the kind of guy he is. Much to the consternation of friends, 61-year-old Burke still can’t say “no.” A child prodigy grown up, the simultaneous holder of umpteen professional titles—all music-related except for one, improbably in the field of asbestos removal—Burke championed multi-tasking long before the term came in vogue.

Dr. Leon Burke III (third from left)

Dr. Leon Burke III (third from left) Photo by Chris Williams

The other day, for example, his cell phone rang during an interview at Kirkwood’s Eliot Unitarian Chapel, where he directs the choir. Whether by text, email or phone, somebody’s always trying to reach him. Book him. Reschedule a lesson. Invite him for a beer. Seek his opinion.

Burke answered the phone on its second ring. From his papers and music scores, he had to retrieve it first. In the oversized hands that complement his 6-foot-4 body—his so-called “piano fingers,” so lengthy they make technically tougher, rather than easier, the race-paced hand fluttering he can nonetheless execute, both on piano and organ—his cell phone looks like a small breakfast bar.

He cradled it. The woman on the other end turned out to be a several-times-married bride-to-be. At her latest matrimonial venue, Old Peace Chapel in Defiance, Mo., Burke is among the organists.

Because his last name starts with “B,” he’s at the top of the chapel’s list. “But I am awfully good,” he chuckles. It comes out early-morning muffled and nowhere near the “Old Man River” rumble he can exhume, once he’s primed his soloist bass voice. Still, he’s endearing.

Dedicated, too. Burke continues to take singing lessons. That and pre-concert haircuts are among his few “for-myself” expenditures. Otherwise, the St. Peters, Mo., resident fills each week thusly:

Mondays: Conducts the Belleville Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Also accompanies, on piano, Philharmonic Chorale, with which he sings, when there’s time.

Tuesdays: Rehearses and sings with St. Louis Symphony Chorus; he’s assistant director.

Wednesdays: Rehearses the University City Symphony Orchestra; he’s music director and conductor.

Thursdays: Teaches voice at East Central (Community) College in Union, Mo. Returns home and, of late, rehearses with area choirs for Holy Week.

Fridays: Teaches voice at East Central College.

Saturdays: Often sings/plays at weddings (he booked the one from his earlier phone call), sometimes at funerals. Performs. Attends the St. Louis Symphony, whether as listener, performer or a cover conductor.

Sundays: Eliot Unitarian Chapel, choir director.

Got it all straight? And that’s not all. Burke sings with Klezundheit! (a klezmer band). Serves as principal guest conductor for Asuncion Symphony in Paraguay. Conducts for Kansas Ballet Theater in Topeka. Judges competitions and plays piano for auditioners.

Oh, and he teaches, in Spanish when necessary, refresher courses in asbestos removal.

Why? Why so much? Here he laughs, full out and deep. Married for 25 years, he has three daughters, college tuitions to help pay, a 1994 Honda Odyssey with some 300,000 miles to maintain … . And music forever in his heart.

Dr. Leon Burke III (third from left) Photo by Chris Williams

Dr. Leon Burke III (third from left) Photo by Chris Williams

Catch Dr. Leon Burke III This Weekend

WHAT: Dr. Leon Burke III conducts the University City Symphony Orchestra’s “The Seeds Continue to Flower” concert, part of UCSO’s Black Art Matters season.

WHEN: Pre-concert talk at 2:15 p.m., concert at 3 p.m. on March 6 at John Burroughs School, 755 S. Price Road, 63124

COST: Free

PROGRAM HIGHLIGHTS: George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and James P. (Jimmy) Johnson’s “Yamekraw – Ebony Rhapsody,” both with Richard Alston, pianist; and contemporary composer Clovice A. Lewis Jr.’s “The Score,” with Lewis playing cello and drawings by area students projected.

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