|At age 40, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra is trying to win an audience as diverse as its parts
by Mark Burns
photo courtesy of Mark O'Dell
On stage, some 75 musicians in formal tones of black are tuning their instruments in chaotic independence. The dull pounding of a kettle drum is overlapped by the high squeal of a piccolo, the fluttering notes of a clarinet, the ranging warm chords of out-of-sync violins. House lights darken and concert master Philip Spletzer - he's the violinist seated up front and directly to the left of the conductor's perch - brings order to cacophony, cueing all instruments to rise up into one harmonious din.
Spletzer sits, rising again with the orchestra as maestro Leslie Dunner enters from the wings. Stepping out to a wave of applause from anybody not with instrument, Dunner takes his podium with a bow to the patrons. He turns to face the orchestra; they sit; he takes up the baton. With a flourish the maestro's flailings begin, music erupting and ebbing at the whim of every gesture. The audience watches intently, ears vibrating from the sonic rush.
"The power of the music coming off the stage will just blow you away," says Greg Stiverson, executive director of Historic London Town and former chairman of the symphony's Board of Trustees. His first dose of live symphony came only after joining the board of trustees in 1984; he hasn't missed an Annapolis Symphony concert since.
Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's musical muscle is, on average, 75 musicians strong, though just who and how many perform depends on the composition. For the most complex works, major orchestras the likes of New York Philharmonic can max out at well over 100 symphonists; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra average nearly 100 apiece.
No matter the scale, the heart of every symphony orchestra lies in the strings of two sections of violins set up front to the conductor's left. Flanking the conductor's right are the complementing strings of cellos, violas and basses. At center whistle a piccolo and two to three flutes alongside oboes. In the rows behind them at center blow clarinets and bassoons. From the rear blare French horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba; on the last row ring harmonies of percussion, harp and piano.
"I love all of the different sounds," says Leslie Dunner, conductor and music director for Annapolis Symphony Orchestra since 1998. "There is no other form of music that I know of that can have such variety."
It's variety that Dunner has explored with the symphony to great acclaim, mixing together a schedule of classical masterworks and contemporary opuses with a sprinkling of pops. Variety means Dunner conducting a formal concert of Bach masterpieces one performance, and the next, sporting a milk mustache while leading a concert of snippets from popular classics for an audience of kids.
For all the variety, symphonic music is basically one of two things: classical or pops. Classical is the old and contemporary art music of symphonies, operas and chamber music with roots in Europe's Middle Ages. It's the stuff of serious artists, since it tends to be more complex and musically challenging material. Pops, on the other hand, is a broad range of things, from Broadway music to Hollywood scores to Fantasia to live music paired with film to Riverdance set to rock. The line between classical and pops can get very blurry, though, with music like Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" or Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" playing both sides. Much of the music that was born classical has become quite popular.
Which means if you've never been to an Annapolis Symphony concert, chances are you're missing out on something you'd like. "You're missing a part of life," says Dunner. "It's like people who have never been to a baseball game. You're missing a part of life. People who've never visited New York or Chicago. You're missing a part of life. People who haven't read the Constitution. You're missing a part of life. Go to a concert, already!"
The Music Makers
Dunner is doubly gifted as symphonists go, able to express himself with words as well as notes. For when asked why they love their art, classical musicians likely reply in words not nearly as poetic as their tune: "I just grew up listening to it." It's like asking Joe Public why he wears socks: "I just grew up wearing them." Perhaps for these symphonists, their music is a pair of comfortable socks taken for granted, the luxuriant lining that protects their very sole, that is soul, from the chaffing of the shoe that is everyday life.
Don't let the blasé lines or bad metaphors fool you. The better answers come through their music.
"They just assume that because it's a classical orchestra it's going to be boring," says principal flutist Kimberly Valerio of reluctant un-initiates. She relates how one man even asked her if an Annapolis Symphony concert would put him to sleep. "That's not the case at all," asserts Valerio. "It's extremely uplifting. These concerts can really knock you off your seat."
Valerio is Annapolis Symphony's own pied piper. As the principal musician in her section, she leads the flutists and gets any solos written for the instrument. Come May, she joins the Music Van program, helping to lure kids into picking up music by bringing them instruments to experiment with. At other times, kids gravitate to her, either for private instruction or to mingle with the musicians after one of the orchestra's family concerts. And, like the pied piper, Valerio travels with her flute. Before Annapolis, she played for the National Repertory Orchestra in Colorado; now she splits time between Key West Symphony Orchestra, Delmarva's Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra and, of course, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra.
She isn't alone. Annapolis Symphony keeps a part-time schedule, so its musicians have to gig around to make fame and fortune. The traveling circles can grow pretty wide, since opportunities for professional musicians are hard to come by. "It's really, really intense competition. You can come to an audition for a flutist, and there are 300 other flutists there from around the country," says Valerio. "You have to be willing to go wherever the opening is."
Annapolis Symphony's musicians are migratory souls, often veteran musicians coming in from other orchestras across the nation. Much of the young talent hails from Baltimore's Peabody Institute. Many immigrants, especially Peabody alums, will soon turn emigrants, seeking new musical endeavors elsewhere. However, not all the symphony's musicians can go wherever their music might take them. Some have day jobs to consider.
"This is the most exhilarating thing that I do," says bassist Fred Geil. "In real life I'm an engineer for Northrop Grumman." Geil has been around, performing with California's Lajola Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh's Carnegie Community Orchestra before moving to Annapolis and joining the symphony in 1975. He's also played with the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra and substitutes "here and there." But in relative terms, Geil's musical wanderlust is tethered by the life he's built in Annapolis.
"There are not many of us left having a non-musical day job and playing at night," says Geil, "but we're still around." During his 26 years with the symphony, Geil has watched it evolve from an orchestra of part-time pros to one of career musicians. "As players drop off, better ones take their places. It makes part-timers like me really scramble to keep up."
Helping them scramble is dynamic maestro Leslie Dunner: trained dancer, aspiring thespian, clarinetist and conductor for 19 years who rode to his 1998 Labor Day weekend debut aboard a fire engine and conducted in a sequined American flag vest.
"I Arrived on a Fire Engine"
photo courtesy of Mark O'Dell
As maestro, Leslie Dunner exudes a wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm for his art.
"Leslie brought a magnetism," says Stiverson. "When he gets in front of the orchestra, there is electricity. It pops and sizzles. That's something you just can't learn."
A two-year search through 279 hopefuls and four finalists picked Leslie Dunner as successor to the popular Gisèle Ben-Dor. The symphony's first African American conductor and music director has since earned fans both on and off the stage. "We have a lot of musical respect for him," says Geil. "He is not the tyrant that other conductors might be and have been in the past. He gets a lot out of us in a gentlemanly manner."
When the gentlemanly maestro bursts into action, the musicians might seem too engrossed in their sheet music to notice his dancing hands, arms and torso. In fact the musicians are very aware, keeping track out of the corners of their eyes. To get their attention, Dunner will often call for the musicians to look at him, play louder, make it softer. Dunner's influence on the music they're playing is profound.
His influence starts early on. As music director, Dunner decides the layout of the orchestra's sections and can adjust its musical makeup. The concert season is largely his design.
As conductor, Dunner arranges compositions to match the style of Annapolis Symphony. It might be a matter of drawing a few notes out longer or adjusting the music for a specific instrument. He might also have to adjust a work that was written with a bigger orchestra and different instrumental proportions in mind. It helps that he's learned and performed on every instrument in the orchestra.
Dunner must then parlay his concept to the musicians, and he labors with them in rehearsal, deemed "sacred time," to make sure their creative minds are in sync. Come the concert, maestro Dunner mounts the podium to lead the orchestra through his vision of the music. Even the slightest gesture has meaning for the musicians, who've learned to read Dunner's unique signals only after building a strong rapport with him.
"He's taken us to another level artistically," says Tonya Robles, Annapolis Symphony's executive director. "For a community this size to have a talent like his is really amazing."
In his first three years, Dunner has left his mark by spicing up the classical Symphonic Series, heart of Annapolis Symphony's season, with fresh contemporary compositions. Included have been a few of his own original works that draw on Gospel, rock and African music. As bonus, his reputation helps draw in major guest talent, like world-renown classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, who plays for May's anniversary gala.
Dunner's reputation is wide-ranging, for his 19-year career has taken him to almost every major American symphony plus South America, Africa, India, Russia, Japan and South Africa. "I spend about 26 weeks on the road," he says. "Contrary to popular belief, there are not a lot of receptions. There is a lot of take-out and heat-up leftovers. Sometimes it's very lonely, because there's not a lot of free time. You're preparing constantly. It's very isolating. But then, there's nothing quite like it."
Here in Annapolis, Dunner has endeared himself as a charismatic ambassador of symphonic music. On the podium, he makes for a kinetic maestro, exuding a sort of wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm for his art as he works a bit of his dance experience into his conducting style. In his downtime, he's been known to visit Annapolis schools on diplomatic missions, extolling the virtues of symphonic music while dispelling the myth of symphony as a Eurocentric high art reserved for penguin suits and old rich people. Dunner himself got the bug while growing up in Harlem and the Bronx and has made a name for himself by blending traditions of classical symphony with African music. Later this year, he goes by request to New Jersey to conduct the world premiere of a work by African composer Hannibal Lookambe.
"The concept of the classical concept and classical audience is changing and evolving," says Dunner. "I think it's good. The more that we all change and evolve, the happier the nature of classical music will be."
It Takes All Kinds
Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's growth was nourished by regular concert subscribers, true philharmonists - classical music lovers - who nurtured a fledgling symphony into a venerable regional institution of 40 years running. They came and stayed for the classical music, Annapolis Symphony's bread and butter. But now the original longhairs are graying and balding. For the symphony to thrive into its next 40 years, new generations must fall in love with the music. The symphony has ideas about how to do that, beginning with broadcasting one simple truth: Annapolis Symphony Orchestra exists.
"It's amazing how many people do not know that we have a fine symphony orchestra," says Stiverson. "But all you have to do to sell somebody on the ASO is get them through the door to one concert. It just sells itself."
It sold John Meloy, a former Annapolis lobbyist now retired to his farm in Upper Marlboro. He'd always known there was an orchestra, but he hadn't gotten around to listening until March's Spring Pops concert. The music so impressed him that he vows to return. Says Meloy, "I would not miss it."
While the Greatest Generation knows where to find good symphony, Generation X isn't quite as clued in. "Particularly in our age group, we don't want to be a secret anymore," says Robles, an Xer herself. Her generation make challenging converts. She waxes philosophical as to why. "The Europeans have something in that they appreciate the aesthetic beauty of life," says Robles, who returned stateside from Spain to take her job with the symphony last August. "We get consumed with the basics, and artistic beauty is missed."
Annapolis Symphony hopes it can turn fresh patrons onto art with the help of Dunner's electric style combined with a season that now includes two pops concerts and two free Labor Day weekend park performances. Other stimuli have been added to past concerts, such as a narrator with slides and a backlit chorus set up behind a veil. Musicians have been dispatched in small chamber groups to venues like City Dock, Fresh Fields and local stores where they play their siren's song for passersby. For novices as well as longhairs, free pre-concert lectures offer insight on the music about to be performed.
Something must be working. In the seats of early April's Spring Pops debut was a multicultural mix of elder patrons in sharp Sunday suits, young couples in black leather jackets and rock fans talking up AC/DC during intermission.
As Dunner knows first-hand, who shows up can be surprising. "In Halifax we had a girl who came in one of those Apache haircuts with hair dyed blue," says Dunner, recalling a college kid he saw at a concert he conducted for Symphony Nova Scotia. He'd see her applauding emotionally every time he turned to face the audience. After the concert ended, she came up to thank him and proclaim her love of Beethoven. Dunner was so impressed that he arranged for her to get free tickets to an upcoming Beethoven festival.
No blue-dyed Apache cuts have popped up at Maryland Hall just yet, though the cropped heads of Midshipmen have come to attention. "We've seen some Mids from the Academy bringing dates to the concerts," says Robles. "It certainly beats the typical burger and shake."
Dunner sees the same. "For a lot of kids now, it's become posh to take your date to the symphony. Lots. It happens here in Annapolis. Think about it; if you're a kid, how many opportunities do you have to dress up and look nice?"
Annapolis Symphony Plays Pied Piper
"So many of the kids now think of me as the bird," says flutist Valerio. She speaks of her young fans from performances of Peter and the Wolf, one of the two Family Concerts performed this year by Annapolis Symphony.
"The children's concert gives us a chance to kick back and have fun," she continues. "It's wonderful." It's the only setting, for example, where a milk-mustached Dunner might pull a pitcher of milk from his podium to use in an elephant's cake. Or where the tuba player pokes his head inside his instrument to find eggs.
In these performances, shorter by half than most cartoon movies, Annapolis Symphony is playing to the youngest of the younger crowds. By setting touring mime acts to music, October's Peter and the Wolf and March's The Lost Elephant attracted near sell-out crowds of kids ages three and up as well as the young at heart. Putting action to music keeps kids happy and helps them walk away in tune to rhythm and mood.
"The bee landed on his bottom," laughs rosy-cheeked Zoe Barnes, age three. The hapless zookeeper's encounter with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" was her favorite part of The Lost Elephant. Now she wanders Maryland Hall's gym and side room among the similarly aged after the concert, stopping to study each musician with wide, inquisitive eyes. Zoe and every other kid get a chance to finger the keys of an oboe, rub bows across strings, stuff a mute into the trumpet's flare. In all, eight musicians, woodwind to percussion, are here to mingle, most of them barely visible for the throngs of curious children enveloping them.
Musicians bring their instruments directly to kids on the Music Van, run by the Friends of Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. In its third year, the Music Van shuttles musicians and instruments to third-grade classes in the Annapolis area during the second half of May. Children can then break off into groups to take turns learning the basics of each instrument and give each a try.
"The kids are amazed when they can do it," says Pam Chaconas, education director and brain behind the van. Music enrollment has doubled in schools where the van has visited, says Chaconas. To help meet new demand, over 70 instruments have been collected in a one-and-a-half year donation drive sponsored by the Friends.
Other kids are making like Mozart. With a grant from the American Symphony Orchestra League, Annapolis Symphony signed up contemporary composer Stephen Paulus for a two-week residency to create and debut a new work for the symphony. A flash of inspiration gave birth to the idea that Paulus could do composing workshops with kids from the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra during his residency. Now seven kids, ages nine to 17, are blending their ideas into Paulus' Dialogues for an Orchestra.
Over the course of five workshops the young symphonists have developed their own compositions under the guiding eye of Paulus. Most of them surprised the composer in that they were already notating their own music. Evan Duke, age 16, had already finished a complete composition. Each of their finished compositions have become themes in Paulus' own opus, with their names appearing in the parts they had a hand in.
It's an incredible opportunity. Paulus is one of the world's most performed contemporary composers. One of his works was recently performed by the New York Philharmonic. He's also reportedly quite kid-friendly. "He really conveys to the kids that he understands what they're trying to do," says Betsy Stuart, general manager of the Youth Symphony and recruiter of kids for the workshop.
From kids' concerts to instrument drives to bringing in a composer mentor, Annapolis Symphony has made strides in bringing youth to music. Kids aren't the only beneficiaries. Kids who appreciate the symphony now may become symphony sponsors later.
What Final Movement?
photo courtesy of Mark O'Dell
Annapolis Symphonys Music Van carries classical musicians to school kids.
What began 40 years ago as an amateur orchestra born from a small circle of amateur musicians playing privately in homes and a church basement has evolved into a thriving community institution.
The American Symphony Orchestra League grant to keep Paulus in residence has the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra keeping company with the big boys: Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra are among the other seven chosen for grants. Annapolis Symphony, with a budget of $750,000, is the only grant winner without a multimillion-dollar budget.
This June, Chaconas and volunteers from Friends of Annapolis Symphony Orchestra are flying to Seattle to pick up American Symphony Orchestra League's Gold Baton Award for education - basically an orchestral Oscar - in honor of the Music Van program. Maestro Dunner has signed on to stay through the 2001-2002 season, promising "more of the same."
Further down the road may be a change of venue. Maryland Hall has been a fine home, but its 880-seat auditorium is bursting at the seams with culture. "We would like to be in a new symphonic concert hall in 10 years," says Robles.
But first there are 40 years to celebrate come May 12, with Latin music, tango dancing and toasts of champagne. Promises Robles, "It's gonna be a great party."
Catch a Concert
The music continues as Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's 40th anniversary season builds to a crescendo. Reserve tickets now for the remaining concerts at Maryland Hall; concerts in the park require only fair weather. All upcoming concerts have Leslie Dunner conducting:
April 27 & 28: Features the world premiere of Stephen Paulus' Dialogues for an Orchestra plus music by Sheila Silver and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Joining are guest vocal soloists Linda Hohenfeld, soprano, and Steven Rainbolt, baritone, plus the Heritage Chorale. A pre-concert lecture with University of Maryland's Rachel Franklin introduces you to the works you're about to hear. Lecture 7pm; concert 8pm; $32 w/discounts; rsvp.
May 12: Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's 40th Anniversary Gala Celebration features an all-Latin concert followed by a tented outdoor champagne reception. World-famous classical guitarist Christopher Parkening plays as guest soloist in a performance of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez." Other composers featured include Copland, Villa-Lobos and Ginastera. Later at the reception you can dance, watch flamenco demos, learn the tango, meet Parkening and toast the symphony's next 40 years. Concert $60 w/discounts; reception $40; rsvp.
Labor Day Weekend: Annapolis Symphony's free Concerts in the Park return to Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis and Downs Park in Pasadena, details to be announced. Watch Bay Weekly's Eight Days a Week event calendar for the latest.
Tickets for Annapolis Symphony's 41st season, beginning in September, go on sale April 27. Box office: 410/263-0907.