Celebrating 20 years of Marquette Symphony Orchestra

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This September, the Marquette Symphony Orchestra will begin its 20th season of enriching the culture of our community through professional music.

The MSO Board of Trustees is proud that the group has reached this milestone and is excited to celebrate it with the community that got them there.

“It’s amazing that a town of Marquette’s size has had a symphony for 20 years,” said Board President Marlene Woo-Lun.

The MSO began in 1996, with the meeting of a group of music enthusiasts who became the first Board of Trustees. The orchestra performed its first concert in May of 1997.

For the first few years, the MSO didn’t have its own conductor, and instead brought in guest conductors for each performance. The orchestra has only had two long-term conductors in its history. The first was Maestro Nuvi Mehta, who conducted from 2000 to 2006. The current principal conductor, hired in 2008, is Dr. Jacob Chi.

“Dr. Chi is a very big conductor,” Woo-Lun said.

Chi has a long list of conducting experience, both in the United States and internationally. He was born in China, and was the conductor and composer for the Beijing Opera Company early in his career. Besides being the principal conductor for the MSO, he is a professor of music at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and is the music director and conductor for the Pueblo Symphony Orchestra. Chi lives in Colorado, and travels to Marquette for each concert.

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Orchestra members include professional musicians, music teachers, community musicians, college music students and some high school students they call “interns.” It’s a full orchestra, with around 70 members, but the membership changes a little from year to year, and even within each season.

“You look out and you see an orchestra of 60 or 65 players and you think that’s the Marquette Symphony. Well, there have been hundreds of people in the Marquette Symphony,” said Dr. Stephen Grugin, chairman of the board’s Artistic Advisory Committee, and the orchestra’s principal trombonist.

While many orchestra members live in the Marquette area, there are also musicians who travel from other parts of the U.P., lower Michigan or even out of state, to participate in orchestra performances. According to Grugin, some come from a distance because they have connections to Marquette and come back to town to play, while others are invited to join because someone in the MSO knows of their talents and has recommended them.

With such a widespread group and a conductor who flies in from Colorado, much of the preparation for the performance happens at home. Musicians are given the music ahead of time to learn individually.

“That’s the amazing thing, they only rehearse (together) the week before the concert,” Woo-Lun said.

The concert season usually runs from September to April or May, and includes five concerts. Four are regular concerts, conducted by Dr. Chi, and one is a holiday concert, conducted by members of the orchestra with directing experience. All the concerts take place at Kauffman Auditorium in Marquette.

After each performance, a social event called an Afterglow is hosted at a local restaurant. One business that has generously hosted in the past is the Landmark Inn.

“The Landmark has done one every year. (They) contribute the food, and the musicians and people come and socialize. It’s really nice,” Woo-Lun said. Typically, a cash bar is also available at Afterglow events.

This season will follow the same structure as usual. The MSO will celebrate its 20th anniversary throughout the 2016/2017 concert season, finishing with a special Anniversary Concert in April.

The MSO would not be where it is today without the support and involvement of the community, and the orchestra wants its anniversary celebrations to acknowledge that.

“We’re really trying to reflect and be a part of the history and the culture and the arts of the Upper Peninsula. It’s not just Marquette; it’s the whole region,” Woo-Lun said.

In choosing pieces from the orchestra’s history to bring back for the celebration, they let the audience get involved in the process.

“We gave the repertoire to members of the orchestra, and they selected their favorites,” Grugin said. The repertoire, or list of all the pieces that the orchestra has played so far, was divided into categories. “Once we got that list, we presented it to the audience at our May concert, and they chose their favorites.”

One audience pick from the voting results will be played at each regular concert this season, and the anniversary concert in April will be comprised entirely of the favorites they voted on.

Other highlights of the coming season include a guest soloist, the premiere of a piece from a local composer and the annual Youth Concerto competition.

The soloist is a name that previous concert goers may remember, as she’s a returning favorite.

“We’re going to have violin soloist Wei-Wei Le,” Woo-Lun said. “She’s wonderful.”

Le will perform at the first concert of the season, on September 17.

The locally-composed piece will premiere at the holiday concert in December.

“We commissioned a local writer, Griffin Candey, and he’ll be writing a piece for us,” Woo-Lun said. “He’s from Marquette.”

Including a locally-commissioned piece is another way that the MSO is incorporating regional culture and involvement into its anniversary celebrations.

This is the third time that the MSO has commissioned a work from a local composer. Previous commissions were Cyan by Ashley Fure in 2009, and A Child’s Requiem by Thomas LaVoy in 2013, which was inspired by a tragic moment in Upper Peninsula history.

Other local talent at the holiday concert will be the Marquette High School choir, the Redmen Chorale. The MSO also welcomes some local musicians who don’t play at the rest of the concerts, like college students who have come home for the holidays. The “Sounds of the Holidays” concert will be on December 17 this year.

The winner of the Youth Concerto competition will be featured at the season’s third regular concert on February 11. The chosen up-and-coming musician will have the honor of performing a solo during the concert, and will also receive a cash prize.

“They send in a video of them playing, and from the applicants we chose a winner,” Grugin said.

“We really make a point to showcase new, young musicians,” Woo-Lun said of the competition.

While most of the winners have been upper level college music students, high school students who are serious about music can also compete.

The Anniversary Concert on April 29 will wrap up the season for the MSO. Some of the audience favorites that won a spot in the concert include An American in Paris by George Gershwin, Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man both by Aaron Copland, and a movement from Antinon Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, known as the New World Symphony.

Besides having a program full of audience favorites, they are hoping to have some musicians and guest directors from the past participate in the concert.

“We are hoping that Nuvi Mehta will be able to join us and conduct one of the pieces at the 20th Anniversary Concert,” Grugin said.

As the MSO celebrates the past in its anniversary season, it also looks toward the organization’s future.

“One of the things we want to do is start to build an endowment so that we have an ongoing fund for the symphony,” Woo-Lun said.

With that in mind, the board has plans for extra fundraising efforts this year. The MSO is funded by individual donations, and supplemented by grants and ticket sales.

Grugin is hoping to see further development in the range of programming offered to the community as the MSO moves forward. On occasion, some small groups within the orchestra, or chambers, put on separate performances. He would like to see that develop into a series. The idea of a children’s or family concert is also a dream for the symphony’s future.

Tickets for any of the MSO’s performances can be purchased through NMU Ticket Outlets. Season tickets became available in July, and individual concert ticket sales start in August. Contact NMU Ticket Outlets at 227-1032. For more information about supporting the MSO, call 226-6591.

— Amy Gawry

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