Reflections on 70 and 10

Starting a new adventure is always exciting!  Seventy years ago, a vibrant collection of local orchestral musicians were organized into the Quincy Little Symphony and led by their energetic and talented conductor, George Irwin.  Those early years became the springboard for the development of a full orchestra with a longer season.  While resources were limited, musical expectations were high, and the spirit and commitment of the fledgling orchestra outweighed the obstacles and new experiences were chartered. 

The 2017-18 concert season represents the Quincy Symphony’s 70th anniversary and concurrently aligns with my 10th anniversary as music director. In researching concert press release history, I chuckled at a 2006 Herald-Whig headline that reads, “WIU Music Prof Would Enjoy Commute.”  Is this a pre-2017 example of fake news?  If my calculations are correct, I’ve driven the round trip Macomb/Quincy excursion over 400 times. Within that period, I’ve met polite state troopers, enjoyed a vast variety of weather, listened to crazy conversations in my carpool, and collided with one enormous raccoon.   My encounters with the troopers ended in a more positive fashion than the raccoon.

Writing this blog post, I reflected on over 50 concert experiences and more importantly, the people that created the music for those performances. With the passing of time, some of these wonderful people are no longer with us.   While it’s difficult to pinpoint all the highlights, let me acknowledge a collection of experiences that I’ll always cherish.

Powerful and Overwhelming Entrances:

What is more exciting for a conductor to lead a full orchestra in for a dramatic and powerful entrance?  It’s an unbelievable thrill.  Moussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev is inspiring for orchestra, conductor and audience.  But what about one entrance where the orchestra was silent?  The opening of the last movement of St. Saens Organ Symphony began with a spectacular C major chord from a visitor to the Morrison Theater.  A large electronic organ leased specifically for this performance was the solo voice and represented a new experience in Morrison.

Music, Theater and Technology:

There’s a growing interest in melding symphonic music programming with projected slide shows, video and actors. QSOA’s first adventure with this concept was Peter Boyer’s production of Ellis Island, Dream of America, which integrated an original musical score, video show and actors from QCT reading excerpts from Ellis Island immigrant letters.  The orchestra continued staging these productions with two examples from the Chicago Symphony’s Beyond the Score program, including performances of Dvorak Symphony 9 Whose World? and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.  These productions represented an exciting new chapter for our orchestra and audiences.

New Music:

The QSOA’s Executive Director Jane Polett arranged a commission for the 60th anniversary season by composer and Quincy native Jeremy Beck.  The work was entitled Majestic River and catapulted the orchestra into an annual commissioning sequence which has yielded new works for orchestra by composers James Stephenson (2), Phil Snedecor, Stephanie Berg, William Camphouse, James Caldwell and Jacob Bancks.  Jim Caldwell’s Lazulian Circuits represented an innovative piece for orchestra and electronic sounds, which was controlled by a laptop computer and linked to six loudspeakers in the Morrison Theater.

Orchestra and Symphony Chorus:

I’ve enjoyed annual collaborations with the Symphony Chorus and Childrens Chorus during my tenure as Music Director.  One of the most rewarding concerts was the performance of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, merging intense beauty and complexity.  We can’t forget the six Christmas programs, each cycle trying to exceed the last in terms of variety, challenges and merriment.

Young Artists Abounding:

Each season, the Young Artists Solo Competition identifies 2-3 special talents to interact with the orchestra as soloists.  Delightful intersections over the years have yielded students of orchestra members, students of WIU colleagues, children of WIU colleagues, children of orchestra members, a Young Artist who will be a featured adult soloist this fall, and my daughter Elizabeth.  While Elizabeth and I discussed a handshake as part of the onstage post performance deportment, I was touched to receive a hug.

Passages:

A community orchestra is the home to many exceptional regional musicians and some are integral parts of the organization for decades.  Their personalities and characters contribute to the fabric and history of the orchestra. Their ultimate departures create a loss for us all and we cling to our memories.   During my tenure, these musical icons of the Quincy community passed away:

Leonora Suppan-Gehrich – your performance of the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto during the late stages of your illness was inspiring.  I will always cherish that experience.

Don Langelier – thank you for your gracious leadership of the second violin section in my initial years as well as your ongoing support of the QSOA from afar.

Doug Reeve – thank you for your contributions to the bass and cello sections of the QSO as well as your wisdom and guidance.

Bob Sibbing – While I’ve forgotten many of your limericks, I’ll never forget your soprano saxophone solo on Ravel’s Bolero, which was played with such passion. 

To these colleagues and others, we miss your talents and personality in the rehearsal hall, concert stage and community.  Thank you for all that you gave us. 

As we embark on our 70th anniversary season and start the next decade, we look forward to conquering new challenges and producing more rewarding performances.  Play on!