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Twenty-Five Years: 1990-2015

From the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra's 2015 program book:

“I’m convinced we have a guardian angel looking out for us.” So says Midcoast Symphony Orchestra manager, John Teller. It would be hard to disagree.  Since Teller became the orchestra’s manager in 2003, MSO has expanded its repertoire, acquired a second concert venue, hired a new conductor, significantly increased its audiences, and grown to more than eighty musicians. Not bad for an all-volunteer orchestra in Midcoast Maine!

MSO began as a chamber group.  A group of friends first began meeting in a member's home to play their favorite chamber pieces.  As with most musical groups, they soon found themselves wanting to expand their repertoire, but to do that the group needed to add both instruments and players to their number.  Phone calls were made and emails sent to musician friends who played, and soon the small group was a chamber orchestra.

Throughout the 1990s the orchestra, under the direction of Paul Ross, rehearsed and performed at various venues along the Midcoast.  But as the orchestra continued to grow in size, and brass players sought the opportunity to play, it was clear that the chamber orchestra needed to become a symphony. In 1999 the Midcoast Chamber Orchestra became the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra and started to look for a permanent home.

In 2002 the orchestra became the orchestra-in-residence at the Orion Performing Arts Center in Topsham, Maine. With a rehearsal and performance space now available to them, the orchestra could focus on growing the size and the difficulty of its repertoire, and expanding its reach in the community.  Growth required an orchestra manager for the behind-the-scenes tasks and a music director who could move them forward musically. 

The Board of Directors chose John Teller, an oboist in the orchestra, to be the manager.

In 2001 the orchestra initiated a search for a conductor, and seventy-two applicants responded. Each of four finalists conducted a concert during the 2002-2003 season, and the position went to Australian-born conductor and violinist Rohan Smith, teacher and conductor at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. 

MSO’s growth continued. In 2004 the newly created Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston formed a partnership with the orchestra, providing a second venue in which to play.  The orchestra was now set to create the future that the original members had long ago dreamed of.

Rohan Smith’s leadership and talent has ably facilitated the growth of the orchestra in its repertoire and its ability to play more demanding orchestral works. 

Smith has attracted world-class, award-winning soloists to play with the orchestra. Pianists George Lopez, Charles Floyd, and Frank Glazer have performed with the orchestra several times over the past eleven years.  Internationally acclaimed violinist Eva Gruesser, trumpeter Wayne du Maine of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and John Ferillo, principal oboeist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others, have all spurred the orchestra members to grow their skills and musicianship.  Guest conductors Janna Hymes, Yoichi Udagawa, and others have also challenged the musicians to adapt to new musical interpretations of both familiar and new works.

The increasing musicianship of the orchestra has attracted the notice of critics, most notably Christopher Hyde of the Portland Press Herald. He rated their 2010 performance of Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome”  “the best performance [of the piece] by an amateur orchestra.”  And in 2013, Hyde wrote: “From the opening chord of the Overture to Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, it was obvious that the players were so much in charge of the score technically that they could devote their full attention to its interpretation. The Midcoast now could stand comparison with many professional orchestras.”

Part of the new, more confident sound of the orchestra is due to the caliber of the musicians the orchestra continues to attract.  Some have played with professional orchestras, several are Juilliard graduates, many are music teachers at local middle schools, high schools and colleges, and all are passionate about and eager to play challenging music. 

All of the orchestra members are volunteers who devote their Wednesday evenings to rehearsing together and countless hours of their time outside of rehearsals mastering the three-to-four major works they perform in each of the orchestra’s four concerts per year.  Orchestra members’ “day jobs” range from surgeon to lawyer to librarian to chef. 

While many of the musicians live in the Brunswick-Topsham area, the orchestra draws members from thirty-two communities north and south along the coast from Belfast to Scarborough and inland from Alna, Lewiston and Auburn.  Members range in age from twenty to ninety-three. And, eleven of the original fourteen chamber orchestra musicians are still members of the orchestra.

As passionate as the musicians are about the music, they are also dedicated to keeping their concerts affordable for the community. Ticket prices are kept low, season tickets include a companion ticket to make it easy to introduce a friend to music, and college students and youth eighteen and younger are admitted free. 

These efforts have paid off as audiences at both Orion and FAHC have grown to well over 800 for each concert series over the past few years. Increasingly, children are part of the audience at every concert, a welcome development in this time of declining audiences for many classical music performances.

The orchestra’s expenses - conductor’s salary, soloists’ fees, and musical scores for the orchestra members – are met with revenues from program advertising and tickets, sponsorship from local businesses, donations from individuals, and  grants. More than 130 businesses purchase advertising in the concert program; another twenty-four provide sponsorships.

Orchestra chair sponsorships also contribute significantly to the orchestra’s funding. During the 2013-2014 season, more than half of the orchestra members were sponsored in this way by one or more individual donors. 

The Steinway concert grand piano at the Franco Center, used by MSO’s soloists, was purchased for the Center by an anonymous donor; the orchestra’s Yamaha concert grand at Orion, as well as the orchestra’s percussion equipment, was purchased with grant funds.  Volunteer members of the Friends of the MSO usher at concerts, host fund-raising dinners, and prepare concert mailings.

Looking to the future, the Symphony Board of Directors announced the start of a $250,000 fundraising campaign at the end of the 2013-2104 concert year. Income from this endowment will help provide the funds to hire the full-time Executive Director and Orchestra Manager that the orchestra now requires.  The Symphony will continue to create opportunities for students to play, listen to, and experience music as an integral part of their learning and lives. 

The Symphony will also expand its reach to new audiences through performances in retirement communities, Pops concerts, and by keeping ticket prices affordable so that community members can continue to enjoy the live-music experience that having a local symphony orchestra provides.

Thanks to the effort of many individuals and organizations, the Capital Campaign met its fundraising goal in 2015.

As wonderful as all of the volunteer musicians, soloists, conductors, and others who come together to create the music may be, the most important component in the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra’s twenty-five seasons of playing is its wonderful, supportive, and enthusiastic audience, which continues to grow every year.  Thank you for helping us celebrate our 25th Anniversary season!