Pioneer Valley Symphony's Diamond Jubilee
Janet Puchalski of Greenfield with Maria Scotera of Greenfield in background
Paul Phillips conducts a Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra rehearsal recently in Hadley.
Nathan Gottschalk 1993 file Macdonald
Pioneer Valley Symphony violiist Anna Wetherby of Wendell
Jubilation … commemoration … celebration … exploration ... innovation ... inspiration.
They may seem like lofty words to describe Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra’s coming 75th season, which opens Oct. 19, but consider that this little community orchestra grew from humble beginnings in a Shelburne living room and within a couple of years was reviewed in the New York Herald Tribune by no less a critic than Pulitzer-prize-winning composer Virgil Thomson.
“Rarely have I heard an amateur orchestral concert so glowing with musical life,” wrote Thomson, adding that any other community in America endeavoring to start an orchestra “would do well to observe the results, artistic and social, achieved by the Pioneer Valley Symphony Association.”
There will be homages to the symphony’s Dec. 10, 1938, debut program when Music Director Paul Phillips takes the podium at Northampton’s Academy of Music in a couple of weeks: Johann Strauss’ “Artist’s Life Waltz,” the only piece that seemed appropriate from the potpourri of movements on that 1938 program; the “Great Gatsby Suite” by John Harbison, born in 1938; and Bartok’s second violin concerto, written in 1938.
Despite the nagging public perception that symphonic “classical” music is timeless, much has changed over the past three-quarters of a century, and, for that matter, since Phillips took over the baton nearly 20 years ago from 36-year veteran musical director Nathan Gottschalk.
Along the way, there have been some challenges, a few surprises and plenty of rewards, says Phillips, who at 57, also has conducted Brown University’s symphony for 25 years.
“What’s surprising is how many members of the orchestra 20 years ago are still playing,” Phillips said recently before a rehearsal in Hadley. “We’ve lost relatively few players who haven’t simply gotten too old to play, very few who’ve said, ‘I don’t like it any more.’ And we’re very fortunate that new players keep turning up. We seem to have a complete orchestra all the time, with good quality, and the passion of the musicians hasn’t really diminished.”
It wasn’t easy for a young conductor to succeed one who had been at the helm for almost as long as the new leader had been alive, especially when this was his first time leading a community orchestra. But even former, long-time PVS members admit that the symphony is playing at a higher quality than ever.
Phillips also teaches at Brown, has led youth orchestras and composes his own music and interacts with professional orchestras and operas. He says that over the past 20 years, “I’ve learned a lot about what it takes a community orchestra to thrive. A community orchestra’s members want to be challenged as much as they can.”
The discussions about whether audiences also want to be challenged have been seemingly endless and Phillips says that among the elements he’s tried to keep in balance is playing a mix of traditional and innovative works, often collaborating with the PVS chorus, or with other orchestras and choruses, in the process.
“What brings people out to see us are often the more novel things we present, whether it’s premieres or older pieces that haven’t been played much, whether it’s an unusual combination of instruments. Whatever it is, it’s a factor of ‘I’m going to hear something I haven’t heard before and am not likely to hear anywhere else,’ that brings people out.”
Think about it. The world of how people listened to music differs dramatically from how it was before PVS came into being.
The Springfield Symphony Orchestra wasn’t created until 1943, Tanglewood’s music shed — built in 1938 also — was something hardly anyone from Franklin County would have driven to back then and there no great touring orchestras playing at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center because it didn’t yet exist.
Nor did high fidelity sound recordings.
“Of course, people play Beethoven and Brahms, and we love doing that,” says Phillips. “That music is easy for people to hear. That makes me all the more grateful that we’ve made it to 75 years and that we keep filling up for concerts.”
This year, PVS will be performing well-known favorites like Bach’s second orchestra suite in November and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in February, along with a rendition at December’s holiday pops concert of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.”
But there will also be the world premiere of William Perry’s song suite “Silent Film Heroines” in March, as well as seldom-performed works, such as Stravinsky’s “Elegy for J.F.K.” as part of a 50th commemoration of the Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22.
“We were thinking about doing a lot more new pieces this year, but we wanted to strike the right balance,” said Phillips, who tries also to balance his own time between the Greenfield-based orchestra and his other activities, including composing. He’s been commissioned, along with storyteller Bill Harley, to write an opera “Weedpatch,” which is loosely based on a school set up in the 1930s for California’s Oklahoma migrants.
Phillips has also focused on the musical works of the novelist Anthony Burgess, about whom he wrote the book, “A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess,” published by Manchester University Press in 2011. Burgess’s widow, after his 1993 death, asked Phillips to organize manuscripts containing dozens of Burgess’ orchestral, chamber, ballet, piano and operatic works. Phillips then went on to edit performance manuscripts and have them premiered, conducting several of them, including two with PVS.
Where to perform has recently become a balancing act for the symphony due to parking headaches at its habitual setting at Greenfield High School, which is now undergoing construction work. Apart from next week’s opening concert in Northampton, the orchestra has arranged for its Nov. 22 concert to be at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, and Phillips said it’s uncertain at this point whether its Dec. 21 concert will be at GHS as originally planned.
“We’ve been exploring other venues,” said Phillips. “We have to make a real effort to get the audience to find us, to follow us, to feel it’s an adventure we’re going through rather than a pain.”
An added juggling act for Phillips involves keeping both the PVS orchestra and its chorus of about 60 singers, under director Jonathan Harvey, challenged but not overburdened.
“A chorus takes longer to learn pieces than an orchestra does, and the choral repertoire is not as vast,” he said. Plus, there are some works that are problematic because they involve a children’s chorus as well, or call for a double chorus.
“You have to have the right amount of time for rehearsing — not too short, not too long — and you have to have the right repertoire and planning of the year in such a way that the chorus feels it’s engaged and valued, and the orchestra feels the same.”
PVS, which has collaborated in the past with the Springfield Symphony orchestra and chorus, as well as with the Hampshire Choral Society, plans to end this season in May together with the PVS Chorus and the Hampshire Choral Society in a performance of Vaughn Williams’ “A Sea Symphony.”
At that concert at the University of Massachusetts-Amhert’s Fine Arts Center, the roughly 75-member orchestra will be joined by about 250 singers in all.
“We thought about doing this many times in the past, but it’s a big undertaking. For the 75th anniversary, we thought, ‘We’ll go for it!”
Long-time symphony members applaud the orchestra as it’s evolved under Phillips’ direction and cheer its influence in their own musical involvement as well as in the life of the community.
Anna Wetherby of Wendell joined the orchestra as a 15-year-old violist in preparation for Phillips’ audition concert 20 years ago and now co-leads its viola section and manages PVS personnel and finances. “I’ll meet people who have come to a concert once — usually the family holiday pops — and tell me, ‘I never knew how good it was; I never knew how fun it could be; I never knew that live classical musical could be like that; I never knew that it was here.’ Even though we’re still a little bit of a hidden gem, when people discover us, they discover this amazing world of, ‘Wow! That’s really fascinating, this whole other realm of music.”
Wetherby, who had never heard a symphony orchestra growing up in Wendell, become inspired enough to earn two degrees in music, to teach music and to start the string program at Greenfield High School through Artspace, as well as to lead the Bement School Orchestra.
“The symphony has become integral to who I am,” she says. “When an audience gets to see how the music works, from section to section, watching the percussionists run around, or hearing what four French horns sound like in person. It’s very different from what four French horns sound like with the best effect you can get from your stereo, it’s not the same at all. It will always be something fresh and alive and different.”
Wetherby has watched the orchestra grow more trusting of Phillips over the years and seen him mellow, “though he’s still very fiery at times.”
Concertmistress Janet Van Blerkom, who’s played with the orchestra since 1969, says, “The level of playing, and of the pieces we perform, has increased dramatically. We’ve attracted a higher caliber musicians than before. Nathan never shied away from doing more demanding music, though sometimes the players were not up for it. Paul is very adept at programming. Sometimes, it’s difficult for players to get a handle on it. For me, it’s made it more interesting.”
The orchestra took a major financial hit after 2008 and watched its budget reduced from nearly $200,000 to roughly $150,000 today. It’s meant some cuts, including what Phillips says is a voluntary pay cut to him of roughly one-third.
Still, the orchestra pays some of its principal members, which Van Blerkon admits is “a bone of contention for some people.” The symphony says the expense is justified because these musicians are required to put in additional time and effort, or they play uncommon instruments, like harp or contrabassoon.
Despite the budget constraints, PVS, in its diamond jubilee years, is also debuting a long-awaited addition: a youth symphony of about 30 members, conducted by Assistant Musical Director Jonathan Brennand.
After years of musical educational programs, “It’s the logical next step” in furthering the musical and educational experience of what calls Brennand “the next generation of musical patrons.”
The youth orchestra’s first concert is scheduled for Dec. 14 in the same setting as the original concert of the Pioneer Valley Symphony on Dec. 10, 1938: Greenfield Middle School (which, at the time, was the high school). On the program will be Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Dance of the Tumblers,” a piece performed by PVS 75 years earlier.
So there’s tumbling, there’s juggling and balancing, there’s a season that Brennand describes as “very exciting, so far” for young performers And there’s plenty to celebrate for the venerable Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra.
On the Web: www.pvsoc.org.
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.