Up North might be many small towns, but we’ve got more symphonies than most big cities.
By Ross Boissoneau | April 21, 2018
There’s nothing like a symphony. Sure, you can plug in guitars and turn them up to 11, pound massive drum sets, even make whale sounds on synthesizers, but the power and majesty of a symphony orchestra can’t be duplicated. Not when you have 40, 50, 60 or more people all keeping in time with the conductor, moving bows across strings, channeling air through wood and brass, and walloping everything from huge kettle drums to a dainty triangle.
“You create something that’s more than the sum of all the parts,” said Tom Riccobono, the music director for the Benzie Symphony. He touts the benefits to the musicians: “It slows the aging process,” he said, noting its enhancement of motor skills, blood flow and basic fitness, and cognitive processing. As for audiences, Riccobono said, “When you hear Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, it brings [out] thoughts and feelings and traditions. That’s why we do this.”
It’s not easy to pull together enough musicians to create an orchestra. So the fact that this region has not one, not two, but five orchestras, plus one that forms for a week each summer, is pretty amazing. From the largest and best-known, the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, to the Festival Orchestra that comes together for Baroque on Beaver, there are opportunities to hear the sweeping melodies and haunting harmonies of Beethoven and Prokofiev as well as modern composers, even holiday sounds.
Here’s a brief profile of each of the organizations:
Traverse Symphony Orchestra
The granddaddy of them all, the TSO was founded in 1952. The professional symphony of 65 core players gives eight to ten performances each year under the baton of Music Director Kevin Rhodes. According to Krista Cooper, the executive director, about one quarter of its budget comes from ticket sales; the rest comes from donations, corporate sponsorship and grants.
Its repertoire includes the usual suspects, as well as lighter fare for some performances, especially at the holidays. Cooper said Rhodes also introduces compositions by modern composers to the orchestra and to audiences. “There’s a great variety. We have a loyal audience (and) there’s plenty of wonderful music,” said Cooper.
The TSO frequently collaborates with guest artists, and both the members of the orchestra and the guests frequently work with young people to introduce them to classical music. The concert scheduled for April 22 was to find some 225 people on the stage at Corson Auditorium, with the orchestra joined by choirs from NMC and Interlochen. Its season-ending concert, June 2, will feature Grammy-nominated pianist John Novacek.
Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra
This is the 18th season for the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra, which now includes some 70 members and is led by Music Director Libor Ondras. Judy Zorn, the executive director of the GLCO, said its repertoire cuts across the classical spectrum. There is plenty of music audiences are familiar with by the likes of Beethoven and Brahms, but the orchestra performs modern music as well, and pops shows include popular movie music. It even has a composer in residence, Gwyneth Walker.
Though based in Petoskey, the GLCO performs across the area, with shows in Harbor Springs, East Jordan, Boyne City, Chalrevoix and Petoskey. It regularly works with students at local schools, as well as presenting six mainstage concerts and six Sunday recitals throughout the year.
The group plays a Messiah show with guests at St. Francis Catholic Church in Petoskey every year, and also performs at Hall Auditorium as part of the Bay View Music Festival. This year the group will also be among those christening the nearby Great Lakes Center for the Arts, as well as playing at the Castle Farms centennial. “I love being able to take the orchestra to different settings,” said Zorn. The group has also toured abroad.
Gaylord Community Orchestra
The Gaylord Community Orchestra is now in its second iteration. After running into difficulty with financing, the group dissolved some six years ago. It then reformed and reorganized last year under the direction of Jim Van Eizenga, the director of orchestras at Novi High School. His wife, who also teaches music, is originally from Gaylord and her parents still live there and are active as string instructors.
Longtime members and musicians Gary and Shari Waldo (trombone and clarinet respectively) said the group has some 40 to 50 members. They say they enjoy the opportunity to play a variety of classical music with other like-minded individuals for an appreciative audience. “We try to cover the bases,” said Gary. Its next concert is May 12, when the group will perform Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” which Gary said he is looking forward to. In all, the Gaylord Community Orchestra performs four times per year, including a concert during Gaylord Alpenfest and a holiday concert.
Unlike the other symphonies, Gaylord’s doesn’t schedule regular rehearsals. Instead, the musicians are expected to have practiced on their own. “We have one or two rehearsals before the concert, maybe just the morning of the show,” said Gary.
“They walk in the door with the music down,” added Shari.
While Gaylord is at the crossroads of M-32 and I-75, it’s still a challenge to get enough musicians, especially string players, who come in from across the state: “The conductor brings in friends from Western Michigan (where he went to college), some from Central Michigan, Traverse City, Petoskey, even Alpena.
“This is a growing community, and we hope to get bigger and better attendance. The biggest problem is people don’t know about us,” said Gary.
The Benzie Symphony (pictured above) was formed in 1980 when founder Julia Kurtyka added woodwinds to what was then known as the Benzie Symphonette. The 45-member group performs several times each year throughout the summer and fall, typically at Benzie Central High School, though smaller groups take the music into other parts of the area.
Riccobono, an instructor of low brass at Interlochen Arts Academy and ICA Adult Band Camp Artistic Director, is also the principal trombonist for the TSO. So why add to his burden by conducting? “I have more to say than I can with my individual instrument. And I have more impact on the interpretation. What I love about the Benzie Symphony, similar to the TSO it is bigger and better than you would expect. For Benzie to have an orchestra says so much about the community.”
He said the orchestra’s approach is low-key. “There are no auditions,” he said, instead inviting musicians to attend a rehearsal. “If you come (to rehearsal) you must have some skill,” he said. Then he’ll ask how the player how it felt, and if it felt good, hopefully the musician returns. “I’ve seen so many lives changed, adult musicians who have put it (their instrument) down and then picked it back up. It’s about the collective product and cooperation.”
Cadillac Area Symphony Orchestra
Mike Filkins serves double duty in Cadillac: He’s the Director of Bands for Cadillac Area Public Schools and the music director for the Cadillac Area Symphony Orchestra. He started his tenure with the orchestra as a clarinetist in 1996, and after conducting the Cadillac Youth Symphony was asked by the Board to take over when it released his predecessor. Like Gaylord and Benzie, members of the Cadillac Area Symphony Orchestra are not paid for their time; they simply do it for the love of the music.
Filkins said one of the things he’s proudest of is the “Locally Grown” artists featured at the orchestra’s spring concerts. While the performance usually featured a guest artist, Filkins decided to feature only guests from the surrounding area. This year’s guests are performers from the Landing Dance Studio. “We have to do it in the performance gym at the high school,” he said, noting that was the only venue large enough to accommodate 35 dancers plus the 60 members of the symphony.
The group performs several times over the course of the year, and its offerings are, according to Filkins, “all over the place.” Music by classical composers like Beethoven, Bach and Verdi, new music by composers such as Michael Markowski, seasonal favorites, and special pieces featuring the locally grown artists are all part of the mix.
Filkins says one of the most enjoyable and yet time-consuming parts of his job is selecting the music. “I spend over two hours every day listening and researching music for the (school) band and orchestra. I use tools like Pandora,” he said, which will suggest music based on his previous selections. “It’ amazing,” Filkins said of discovering previously unknown music or composers. But there is a downside: “Sometimes a sad part of the process is the music is it (the music) is not available or is extremely costly.”
This one’s an anomaly, as it only exists for the duration of the Baroque on Beaver music festival, which this year runs from July 27 to August 4. It draws players from across the state, professional talent from orchestras all over Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Symphony, Ann Arbor Symphony, Midland Symphony, Traverse Symphony. If that’s surprising, given Beaver Island’s remoteness, then the fact some players come from San Diego, Oregon, even Mexico is even more so. Artistic Director Matt Thomas ascribes it to the festival’s burgeoning reputation and the island’s beauty.
Thomas said the 35-member orchestra sees is little turnover year to year. He told of one encounter he had with a violinist who, partway through his first time playing with the orchestra, approached him and said, “I don’t know how to say this.” Thomas thought he wanted to leave the island immediately. Instead, he told Thomas, “I really need you to ask me back. Playing the concert, the island is phenomenal, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Another musician says each year that if he isn’t invited back, “I will beg, I will grovel — it won’t be pretty.”
While the festival is called Baroque on Beaver, the music is not confined to any specific period or genre. “There’s no limit to what we can program,” said Thomas, noting the orchestra has performed show music, pops concerts, and world premieres of contemporary classical music. This year it will perform the U.S. premier of Stacy Garrop’s Violin Concerto. It also brings in soloists, which this year include guitarist Matthew Cochrane and pianist Kevin Cole. Various other chamber groups perform, including Thomas’s Metallurgy Brass Quintet.