A decade of symphonic splendor, by Jamie Lafreniere

Marquette Symphony Orchestra celebrates its tenth anniversary
When listening to the Marquette Symphony Orchestra, it is hard to believe they have been on the Kaufman stage for only ten years. But for players and board members, it is hard to believe it has been that long.
The idea of a regional symphony orchestra started with Don Grant, head of the music department at Northern Michigan University, and Janis Shier Peterson, director of orchestras for Marquette Area Public Schools.
“Don and I discussed the absence of a symphony orchestra when he first came to Marquette,” Peterson said. “We both starting talking it up around town and used bylaws from an orchestra that Don started in Texas.”
Next on board was City of Marquette arts and culture director Reatha Tweedie, who quickly found some seed money.
“We put it together as a partnership with the local schools, NMU and the City of Marquette,” Tweedie said. “We started through ads to get interested people to come to an organizational meeting, which was held at the Jacobetti Center.”
The board of trustees came together quickly, and some founders include Robert Glenn, Yvonne Lee, Barb Bruce, Claudia Drosen, Ed Quinnell and Bill Savola.
“I joined because I thought having a symphony would be of immense benefit to the Marquette area,” said Glenn, a retired NMU English professor. “My hopes were fulfilled.”
City attorney Willard Martin drew up the 501(c)(3) papers, and fundraising began.
“I was not in on the beginning of the Symphony,” said Dr. Dan Arnold, current board president. “And I give the greatest credit to the pioneers who built this orchestra from scratch.”
Quinnell was the organization’s pre-incorporation president, and remembers trying to get musicians and audience members interested in the new venture.
“We wanted an inclusive organization and we needed to import some players,” Quinnell said. “The objective was to get as many U.P. players as we could and we did pretty well.”
There was about a year between first auditions and first concert, but it was well worth the wait.
“Our first concert had around sixty players and it was a pops concert,” Quinnell said. “We and the audience were surprised that we could put together something as sophisticated as Copland’s Rodeo, but there was a lot of work going into it.”
During start-up, the musicians received only a minimal pay scale and travel reimbursement of eleven cents per mile. Ed and Sandy Quinnell and Wally and Barb Bruce gave guest conductors housing to further save the MSO money, a tradition they maintain today. But audience reaction and musician pride was well worth the extra effort.
“My favorite memory of the MSO is the first time we had a sell-out concert,” Peterson said. “It was a pops concert in September—and you could feel the energy. The musicians were backstage talking about it and were excited to play for that great audience.”
Flute player and former board member Drosen remembers the early years fondly.
“I auditioned and received a position in the flute section of the MSO at its very beginning,” she said. “Some of my best memories involve the first year, when our future was shaky, but our resolve was great. We were all so excited about making the Symphony a reality. Board members went out into the field and tried to raise enthusiasm and monetary support for this great venture. There were hard times, but we managed to keep the dream alive.”
Tweedie acknowledges how much work went into both start-up and maintenance of that dream.
“We worked hard, as the board is still doing, to get funding and support and in getting musicians. It is great that the area and community has supported the MSO these past years.”
Glenn has been dedicated to securing funding for the group, starting with setting ticket prices.
“We wanted to insure that the ticket prices would not exclude the less fortunate,” he said. “But we knew immediately that revenue from tickets would not be sufficient for operations.”
It was clear to the board there was much work to be done.
“I think there are obstacles to every project that sets a new precedent,” Drosen said. “People in the community might wonder, ‘Why do you need to do this?’ You do have problems convincing folks to come aboard and share your vision. However, I think we’ve seen that our community ultimately wants culture. Our donors are evidence of this. So, whatever glitches we had to face were overcome by the results—a regional orchestra that is ours.”
Peterson points out another concern, which is finding musicians—especially strings.
“The new high school graduation requirements include only one credit of fine arts, and orchestra programs could become even more scarce than they already are,” Peterson said. “If the community doesn’t actively support fine arts, they could end up with schools that only offer music appreciation-type courses.”
Drosen agreed that young players are vital to the future of the orchestra.
“I feel that the orchestra’s strengths are in reaching out to include young musicians among its ranks,” she said. “I was privileged to play extra flute on occasion with the Milwaukee Symphony when I was nineteen or so. There is so much to be learned by being part of a working orchestra and having those opportunities.”
Stan Wright, producer and director at Public Radio 90, also includes the addition of young players as one of MSO’s strengths.
“It is the only Symphony Orchestra in the area that gives young people their first opportunity to perform professionally,” Wright said. “Without the MSO, young performers would have to travel several hours for the same opportunity elsewhere.”
This commitment to musician education was an early goal of the symphony, and remains a top priority. Former music director Nuvi Mehta took extra rehearsal time to ensure the best sound from each musician. It paid off, and the orchestra is proud to showcase the talents of local musicians.
This was evidenced last year when Rebekah Newman, a former member of the orchestra, returned as a solo performer. Her accomplishments include joining the Milwaukee Irish School of Music and winning the Michigan Outstanding Concerto soloist award for violin.
Currently a student in the bachelor of music program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, she returned to Marquette to perform “Winter” and “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Quality musicians are the strength of the Marquette Symphony Orchestra. Peterson has had the opportunity to conduct the orchestra twice.
“They are great musicians, and it’s incredibly fun to make music with them,” Peterson said. “The group is dedicated, hard working and talented.”
Drosen agreed.
“We have grown in the last ten years by leaps and bounds,” she said. “Our players are stronger and more confident; we have had the chance to learn the styles of many different conductors, and we have been able to do the most important thing—learn to play fine music and bring it to our audiences.”
The orchestra has grown in stature and in style, Glenn said.
“We play mostly from the classical repertoire, with no oversimplifications,” he said. “The Marquette Symphony Orchestra is one of the stellar artistic forces in the Marquette area.”
Arnold also credits Mehta’s hard work.
“The change to a principal conductor permitted a great deal of musical growth in the symphony,” he said.
And this growth continues.
“We have been pleased to bring some unique performances to the Marquette area, such as the recent Peck percussion concerto, and to facilitate the development of local musicians,” Arnold said.
Mehta attributes such success to two sources.
“The orchestra has developed a great deal,” he said. “Some sections of the orchestra are very strong, and the whole level of the orchestra has risen. The strongest asset of the orchestra, however, and I would say of any orchestra, is its audience. The Marquette Symphony is blessed with a wonderful audience, which loves music and is growing all the time. This is the asset that the orchestra must continue to cultivate as it continues to improve. Improvement and audience cultivation go hand in hand.”
Wright is the producer and host of “Superiorland Concerts” on Public Radio 90, which features many Marquette Symphony Orchestra performances throughout the year. Some that come immediately to his mind are the concert in which Mehta played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto while conducting the orchestra; the Conductor Cornucopia, when four different conductors lead the orchestra, and the concerts in which he participated, narrating Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait in one program, and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite in another.
Glenn is especially proud of the first concert, especially the orchestra’s ability to play Beethoven’s 7th and Brahms 1st.
“It was way over our heads, but it came off magnificently,” Glenn said. “It was a giant step ahead.”
Other successes include performances of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, Rhapsody in Blue and two Beethoven piano concertos with Dadi Mehta, Nuvi’s father, as guest soloist.
“The culture that MSO brings to the community is so valuable,” Peterson said. “It provides exposure to famous composers for our youth and an incentive for the music students who might want to someday be a member. There aren’t many cities our size with a symphony, and I’m sure it helps attract new residents who value the arts in their lives. To me, it is what makes Marquette a Superior location.”
Stan Wright agreed.
“The orchestra contributes to a more cosmopolitan community here,” he said. “Each concert season adds not only to the cultural enrichment of the area, but provides an economic boost, as well.”
Arnold has helped with recruiting for Marquette General Hospital, and agrees that the orchestra gives Marquette something extra to offer newcomers.
“The availability of local classical music performance certainly improves the general quality of life of the Marquette community, both for our musicians and our concertgoers,” Arnold said. “I like to think that we contribute to Marquette’s Most Livable Cities designation. This also assists in the recruitment of businesses and professional talent to our area.”
The orchestra has many plans in place to go beyond this tenth season. The artistic advisory board is working to appoint a new principle conductor in hopes of finding someone who can elevate both musicians and audience members to a higher level of music appreciation.
“I think the Marquette symphony is in a wonderful position to take a step forward,” Mehta said. “There is community support. The orchestra has come a long way. Adding some players to the orchestra will be very important right at this moment, and finding a conductor who continues to educate the public and bring more audience on board could be very important to that next step.”
Glenn has seen a lot of change in ten years, and is ready for the next set of challenges.
“I’m sanguine about the future,” Glenn said. “We will continue to improve both in stature and in style. We are presently playing music we wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting even five years ago.”
The tenth anniversary concert is at 7:30 p.m. on March 31 in Kaufman Auditorium, and the performance will include two dance episodes from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, one of the pieces played at the first concert. New selections will include music from Lalo, Liszt and Shostakovich, led by guest conductor Robert Ritzema.
“There is no way of quantifying what value a performing organization brings to a community,” Drosen said. “We are lucky to be in a small town that isn’t too small to support a regional symphony. The way to assess the wonderful and intangible things this brings to an area like ours is to see the faces of the often sold-out audiences cheering us on. The only way we can thank them is to keep the music coming.”
—Jamie Lafreniere
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