By: Matthew Jenetopulos

April 26, 2019

I play in the South Shore Orchestra, a small community orchestra in Northwest Indiana that performs at the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso. You’ve probably never heard of us, and that’s exactly the point. The SSO is made up of a mix of professional, amateur, and student musicians and has been bringing music to its community for 15 years.

The same is true of the New Britain Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut, where I had the opportunity to work as interim executive director while I was in college. The NBSO had just celebrated its 60th anniversary when the 2008–09 recession shone a hard light on its finances. Funders disappeared. Belts were tightened. Consultants were consulted. When the board met to discuss various bad and worse options, they ultimately settled on cancelling the upcoming season — but continuing the long-running children’s concert, which annually drew busloads of students from the region and had touched generations of future music lovers in the area.

Flash forward 10 years, to this month, when I found myself in the pit orchestra for the South Shore Orchestra’s annual production of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with a local youth theater program. In the less than 30 minutes of music, I watched children from local elementary schools become transported as they were introduced to the characters represented by the various instruments — the frantic flute of the bird, the gruff bassoon of the grandfather (who always got the biggest laugh), and the surging strings representing the boy who outsmarts a wolf. It was great to see these kids on stage, acting out the story through puppetry. Community orchestras do this, not as a dutiful sideline or “outreach” effort. It’s their identity and purpose. They’re all about local residents coming together to hear local musicians. Their neighbors, their teachers, the faces they recognize from the grocery store. They’re about familiarity and multi-generational participation for those with a passion, but not necessarily a profession, in orchestral music.

I thought back to the NBSO board’s decision to preserve the family concert. Wise move, in the long run; watching faces light up to avoid going dark.

Have questions or want to chat about community orchestras? Send me a note.


Photo credit: Theo Jenetopulos 

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