×

Pioneer Valley Symphony kicks off 80th season

  • Tian Hui Ng conducts the Pioneer Valley Symphony during rehearsal at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Janet Atherton rehearses on trumpet with the Pioneer Valley Symphony at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Tian Hui Ng conducts the Pioneer Valley Symphony during rehearsal at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • The Pioneer Valley Symphony rehearses at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Tian Hui Ng conducts the Pioneer Valley Symphony during rehearsal at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Dustin Patrick rehearses percussion with the Pioneer Valley Symphony at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Becca Lipton rehearses on tuba with the Pioneer Valley Symphony at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Alex Meade and Roger Clapp rehearse on bassoon with the Pioneer Valley Symphony at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Lynn Lovell rehearses on bass with the Pioneer Valley Symphony at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Tian Hui Ng conducts the Pioneer Valley Symphony during rehearsal at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Janet Van Blerkom rehearses on violin with the Pioneer Valley Symphony at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Tina Brounsuzian rehearses flute with the Pioneer Valley Symphony at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Hadley. Staff Photo/Dan Little



Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2018

“Small town symphony,” the New York Times headline read back in 1943 — less than five years after Greenfield’s very own Pioneer Valley Symphony’s premiere season: “Neither below-zero weather nor the (government) ban on pleasure driving has been able to keep performers or subscribers away from the concerts.

“On a recent icy Sunday, more than 1,000 persons hiked the chilly mile and a half from the center of this bustling town to hear the second concert of the fourth season at the Greenfield High School auditorium,” read the article, which called attention to what has today become one of the nation’s oldest community orchestras.

The article was enough of a bravo for the symphony and its conductor, Harold “Alexander” Leslie, that he was called on to form Springfield’s symphony orchestra in 1944.

But if there’s a lot of legacy as the Pioneer Valley Symphony opens its 80th season with a concert Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Greenfield High School, there’s plenty that’s new as well.

Most notably is Tian Hui Ng, recently named as the orchestra’s 38-year-old musical director, succeeding 23-year veteran director Paul Phillips.

Ng, who has been music director of the Mount Holyoke College Symphony Orchestra since 2011, is a winner of the American Prize in Orchestral Programming and was recently named resident conductor at the Boston New Music Initiative.

The opening concert will also introduce a U.S. premiere work, Chaya Czernowin’s “Once I Blinked, Nothing Was the Same,” reflecting Ng’s choice of innovative programming and his advocacy of new music.

But the three-minute piece, in which Harvard composition professor Czernowin has orchestra members and even audience members creating sounds in entirely new ways, will be balanced on the program by Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Jean-Féry Rebel’s “The Elements” and Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan.

“We’re really excited,” Ng said recently from Berlin, Germany, where he’s spent the last month attending a conference on how symphonic orchestras can better engage audiences. (During his absence, the orchestra rehearsed under the baton of Assistant Director Netta Hadari.)

The piece, which Ng plans to present twice — before and after intermission , when audience members can ask questions of the composer herself — is “absolutely fascinating,” he said. “It explores bounds and textures, what’s external sound and internal sound.”

Exploring new music

Viola player Anna Wetherby, now in her sixth season with the orchestra, said having Czernowin herself at the concert will be “super exciting.” Wetherby appreciates the challenge of not only premiering music that orchestra members have never heard before, but of playing in entirely new ways, with woodwinds talking into their instruments, string musicians playing on the bridge of their instruments and more.

“It makes musicians have to think about music in new ways about their instruments,” she said. “How does the audience respond to this? We have no idea.”

Even more tellingly, Ng added, “I think about the structure of leadership and the ways a conductor interacts with an orchestra, and here’s a piece that’s complex and requires a truly democratic situation. Almost everybody in the orchestra has something to do that’s unique to themselves, with chance elements that will change every single time we rehearse and perform it, because they’re instructed to do things that are quite special. So it’s no longer an all-knowing god figure of a conductor creating air and space, it’s really a conductor enabling the setting and situation, and the orchestra speaking for itself. That’s a beautiful metaphor.”

Ng, like both other finalists chosen from among more than 40 musical directorship applicants, was asked to propose a concert program. He selected Schubert’s eighth symphony, not only because it was presented in the orchestra’s initial season, but also as a work labeled as “unfinished.”

“I felt how fitting it is, in our 80th year, with a new music director and the future wide and unchartered in front of us,” Ng said. “There’s so much to explore. We’re not done at all; we’re looking forward to the next chapter.”

There’s also the Strauss overture, which Ng said “sets the heart racing,” and Rebel’s “Elements,” the French Baroque composer’s foreshadowing of tone clusters 200 years before they were popularized in the 20th century.

“It sounds every bit as modern as Czernowin, and I have to say I love the connection between the two in that way,” said Ng, who grew up playing nothing but Mozart for four or five hours a day until he was 10 or 12 because “I couldn’t get enough of it.”

As a staunch believer in the importance of playing new music, he plans to continue his predecessor’s exploration of new compositions with the orchestra.

“Everyone knew what they were getting into,” he added with a laugh. “It’s been wonderful for me as an incoming conductor. One thing I asked myself is, ‘What can I risk with this group?’ ‘What will the board think?’ ‘Will the orchestra respond to this music?’”

PVS Board President Beckie Markarian, a member of the symphony’s 70-plus member chorus for five years, said, “This season does an amazing job marrying our past with our future. So a lot of the pieces we’ve chosen reflect the history of the Pioneer Valley Symphony.”

The Czernowin composition, she added, “speaks to our commitment to programming with women composers, and helping to support new music and bringing that to valley.”

The season will bring together a Harry Potter-themed holiday concert on Dec. 15, a Feb. 1 program, including a Beethoven violin concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a March 16 concert with Haydn’s 100th and Mahler’s fifth symphonies at Northampton’s John M. Greene Hall, and a Beethoven’s ninth symphony finale on May 11.

“I love the idea of bringing choral singers from throughout the valley for Beethoven’s ninth,” Markarian said, explaining that other choruses have been invited to participate. “It’s a wonderful way of showing the power of music and how it connects us all.”

In addition to the 80-plus member orchestra and chorus, the symphony also has a 35-member PVS Youth Orchestra now in its sixth season, with concerts planned for Nov. 10 and April 6.

“It’s really exciting to see them grow and get involved,” Markarian said. Not only do the young musicians perform independently, but they also participate in the holiday concert and have sectional rehearsals with the adult performers, “so they get an opportunity to build connections. It inspires them to see what the future for themselves can be.”

There’s also an annual six-week educational program with learning materials provided for teachers and third- and fourth-graders from around the county, who have been invited to the April concert as a way “to talk about music, to build a love for music and have them get a sense of what symphonic music can be,” Markarian said.

‘Bigger and better’

Few of these initiatives could have been imagined when Leslie first broached the idea of a symphony orchestra at a 1938 dinner to which Dr. Knowlton and Phyllis Stone were invited along with Channing Bete and other community leaders.

He wanted more than the informal Greenfield Civic Orchestra gathering of musicians that had already been playing for their own enjoyment in the Shelburne living room of S.A. “Shep” Raymond, who had a knack for rounding up enough music stands and copies of sheet music for whoever showed up to play, recalled Stone and his wife, who continued playing for the orchestra long after it hired Hartt School head Nathan Gootschalk as musical director in 1956.

Gottschalk, who continued conducting the orchestra until 1993, long after moving from Hartford to Albany to head the music department at the State University of New York there, also led the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

“It was a simpler time then,” recalled Wendy Foxmyn, who has played with the orchestra off and on since 1983, when she first moved to the area and learned that Gottschalk was musical director. Foxmyn had played violin for Gottschalk a decade earlier in the Long Island Youth Orchestra.

“When I’m exhausted from work” the Deerfield town administrator said, “and it’s cold out and I don’t want to do it, but I go to rehearsal, I’m really happy to be there. Those are my most family of friends, and there’s something that just connects us all. It’s a community.”

Concertmaster Janet Van Blerkom, who joined the orchestra nearly 50 years ago, in 1969, when she moved to the area, also recalls Gottschalk — who had taught her violin as a teenager in Connecticut — as “very wonderful” in inspiring members and audiences alike.

But the retired Smith College physics professor added, “It’s so much more professional now, I think, in many ways. We have some really excellent winds and brass, and the string section is definitely bigger and better. It’s a much better orchestra. People who come for the first time are blown away. They didn’t realize there was such a wonderful resource here.”

PVS, which has won awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for its creative programming, receives only about 20 percent of its budget from ticket sales, with individual donors as well as local, state and national grants making up the difference.

Not only do the members — some of whom, like Van Blerkom, have been together in the symphony for years — make music together, but many of them know one another and their families. It’s those kind of connections, also with loyal audience members who may know the musicians performing as also their neighbors, or perhaps as their teachers or physicians, that adds a special quality to a community orchestra like the Pioneer Valley Symphony.

“I felt this was home,” said Wetherby, who played with various orchestras, some of them with semi-professional members who “just show up, do your job and go home. … (Here) the community aspect is really important. Pioneer Valley Symphony is much, much more than a job. It’s definitely a commitment of love and labor.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at the Greenfield Recorder for more than 40 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.