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Its ambitions are both big and small, and its musicians make valuable contributions to the community.
The Roanoke Times | File 2006
David Stewart Wiley.
The Roanoke Times | File 2002
The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra performs at the Roanoke Civic Center.
Roanoke Symphony Orchestra opens its 60th season with an Oct. 7 concert featuring dashing Alexandria cellist Zuill Bailey.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Roanoke Symphony Orchestra's first performance was in 1953 in a high school auditorium. Today, the orchestra has 83 musicians, a $1.7 million budget, and plays with the likes of Willie Nelson and Sir James Galway, the most famous flutist in the world.
This year, the symphony celebrates its 60th anniversary season with ambitions big and small.
In the spring, RSO added 13 new musicians to the 70 already on hand, allowing the orchestra to produce some massive sound when everyone's present, as they will be during their Oct. 7 season opening concert.
Yet the symphony has also changed its masterworks series in an effort to reach smaller corners of the community. The nonprofit will give three big concerts at the Roanoke Civic Center and one at Jefferson Center, but it will also introduce four "destination concerts" - two at Mill Mountain Theatre, one at Calvary Baptist Church in southwest Roanoke, and one at The Green Room, located inside the symphony's new offices at Campbell Avenue and Williamson Road.
By making more intimate venues part of its regular season, RSO is harkening back to its 1950s roots, when rehearsals took place inside St. John's Episcopal Church at Elm Avenue and Jefferson Street, said RSO Executive Director Beth Pline.
To celebrate its diamond anniversary, the symphony will delve further into its roots, creating an exhibition detailing its 60-year history as recorded in the pages of The Roanoke Times. Created with a grant from the Landmark Foundation (before the newspaper's purchase by BH Media Group in May), the exhibition will be displayed at RSO's 2013-14 concerts starting on opening night.
The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra began as a grass-roots effort under the leadership of volunteer conductor Gibson Morrissey . RSO's very first concert took place March 31, 1953, in the Jefferson High School auditorium. Reviews of the show betray the skepticism the venture faced in its day, with the Roanoke World-News dubbing the "near-professional" performance a "miracle." Rival newspaper The Roanoke Times declared that "any performance would have been a complete triumph," but Morrissey "made it a real musical triumph."
Morrissey, who died suddenly in 1975, was memorialized in a statue that is still on display inside the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre .
Musicians who've been part of RSO for decades talk about its transition from a community orchestra to a professional ensemble. The turning point came in 1986, when an endowment bestowed by Roanoke philanthropist Marion Via allowed the orchestra to hire its first paid conductor, Victoria Bond, who was also the first woman to receive a doctorate in conducting from The Juilliard School in New York.
Wally Easter, RSO's principal horn player since 1981, recalled the symphony's annual operating budget quickly going from about $225,000 in the mid-1980s to more than $1 million. Before the economic collapse of 2008, RSO's budget had grown to about $2 million. At present it's a slightly more austere $1.7 million, but that's still much more than the $15,000 in expenses during the 1954-55 season.
Conductor and music director David Stewart Wiley took over Bond's position in 1996. A charming ham on the podium, Wiley, 47, gets kudos from his musical colleagues for keeping a cool head at rehearsals and for keeping high quality music on the programs while staying under budget.
For his part, Wiley said the musicians make valuable contributions to the community they serve.
"These musicians are part of the fabric of not only our community but our region."
Though it wouldn't be practical to interview all 83 musicians for this column, here are a few of their stories.
JAMES GLAZEBROOK, associate concertmaster and Roanoke Youth Symphony Orchestra director
From: San Diego
"I have suspected for a long time that I am the senior member of the orchestra," Glazebrook said. If he isn't the oldest, he has certainly had one of the longest careers there.
Glazebrook, who lives in Roanoke, first joined the violin section after landing a teaching job at Virginia Tech in 1975. These days, he teaches violin and viola, but "back when I first started you had to do everything" because the university's music department was so small, he said.
Before he came to Southwest Virginia, Glazebrook was concertmaster for the Colorado Springs Orchestra; he became RSO's concertmaster in 1992 after the death of his predecessor, Alfred Lanegger. He also took over directing the Roanoke youth orchestra when the position came open in 1988 - in previous jobs, he'd conducted a high school orchestra and a youth orchestra.
"It's been kind of a theme for me," he said. "When the opportunity presented itself I was eager to do it."
Glazebrook said he chose to step down as concertmaster in 2003, which opened the way for RSO to hire Akemi Takayama .
"There's a time for the older generation to make room for the new," he said, adding with a laugh that moving over one chair allowed him to share a musical stand with the best possible partner.
RSO musicians have gotten to share a stage with an array of celebrities, from Sir James Galway to Willie Nelson. Glazebrook expressed particular appreciation for the ongoing relationship RSO has with Alexandria cellist Zuill Bailey , who will play with the symphony for its season opener on Oct. 7.
Yet the highlight of being in an orchestra, he said, is the satisfaction of exploring music created by great composers, with colleagues you admire .
"There's been ups and downs economically," he said. Sometimes it's been easy to raise funds, sometimes it's been difficult, but regardless of the financial climate, "I think artistically we've been on a steady upward trajectory. David [Wiley] has taken the orchestra to a higher level."
Even though many of the musicians in RSO don't live in Roanoke, they identify strongly with the city where they play. The appreciation is clearly mutual, and Glazebrook experiences it firsthand.
"I'm always getting stopped in supermarket lines and restaurants by people who recognize me from the orchestra."
AKEMI TAKAYAMA, concertmaster
As a Japanese citizen fresh out of school, Takayama was only supposed to stay in the United States for one year when she first came here in 1997. But that year, she joined the now-defunct Audubon Quartet, which was the resident chamber music ensemble at Virginia Tech at the time. That allowed her to stay in this country.
"I think I was lucky," Takayama said.
It was at Virginia Tech where Glazebrook first heard her play J.S. Bach's Chaconne , a 15-minute composition for solo violin. Glazebrook asked her for a copy of the recorded performance, then later told her he'd shared it with Wiley. When he stepped down as RSO concertmaster, Glazebrook encouraged Takayama to apply. She auditioned, along with numerous other hopefuls, and in 2004 landed the job.
Takayama lives in Winchester, where she teaches at Shenandoah University. She's also concertmaster for the Williamsburg Symphonia. She said a symphony is much like a chamber music ensemble. "It's just a bigger version of collaboration."
She praised Wiley, with whom she's frequently collaborated. "He is an inspiration. I'm not just saying that to be sweet about it. He's always thinking about what's the best for the orchestra, what's the best for the community, what's the best for the musicians."
As an example of what can happen when professional musicians work well together, Takayama recalled a 2008 concert in the Shaftman Performance Hall at Jefferson Center during which the lights cut out in the middle of a Schoenberg piece. The musicians knew the work well enough to keep going. "We played as if nothing happened," she said. "It gave a special effect."
Takayama said that she enjoys taking part in the Pops concerts, because even though guest artists such as Natalie Cole and Aaron Neville aren't classical musicians, they are still the top musicians in their fields.
WALLACE EASTER, principal horn
From: Niagara Falls, N.Y. (grew up in a suburb of Buffalo)
Easter was in his 20s when he joined the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in 1981 . Like Glazebrook, his path to the RSO was through the music department at Virginia Tech, where he had started teaching French horn. Easter's predecessor in that job had been principal horn at RSO, so he stepped into the role.
Before he came to Southwest Virginia, he played in the United States Marine Band, known as "The President's Own" because of its long history of performances at the White House. He speaks with pride about getting to play there.
The biggest change Easter has seen since he joined the RSO?
"The orchestra's much better now than it was," he said. Back then, "the quality was spotty at best." He recalled then-conductor Jack Moehlenkamp trying to secure more funding to improve the orchestra and being told Roanoke wouldn't support an expansion.
Though the musicianship improved under Victoria Bond - Easter said he loved getting to play complex works by Mahler and Stravinsky - it wasn't always perfect. Easter shared an anecdote about a performance of "The Three-Cornered Hat" by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla during which the timing went awry. Easter had a solo in the piece. He decided to choose when to play it rather than wait for the conductor's cue - and once he finished, the orchestra got back on track and stayed there.
Easter said that Wiley is "very adept at getting the maximum out of the musicians. He's good at taking suggestions, unlike an awful lot of conductors."
For Easter, the best part of being in RSO is "getting to play standards of the orchestral repertoire that I hadn't gotten to do before," he said. "The fact that the orchestra remains strong in this relatively small area is very important to me and I give it everything I can."
JULEE HICKCOX, principal piccollo, second flute
From: Singapore; then Bethesda, Md., with her adoptive parents; then Hong Kong
How Hickcox joined RSO makes for a charming story. She had graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts and was living in Gettysburg, Pa., frustrated because she was unable to get a job in her field.
"There was really no arts and culture around," she said.
She decided to start over in Roanoke , where she took a job as a waitress at Olive Garden. One day in 1996, as she was about to leave, she was asked to wait on one last table. It turned out to be the RSO board treating the newly hired David Stewart Wiley to dinner.
When Hickcox mentioned she played flute, she learned the orchestra would be calling for auditions for a flute player. Wiley encouraged her to try out.
"I had to get my flute and piccolo from New York," she said. As a result, she won the audition and has been part of RSO for as long as Wiley . "I'm appreciative to David because he's really put me out there. We do a lot of things together."
Hickcox enjoys the Pops concerts, which have given her the chance to share the stage with celebrities such as Bernadette Peters. She also enjoys "the sense of family with the musicians and with David."
One of the surprise bonuses of her career happened in 2011, when superstar flute player Sir James Galway played with RSO. When Hickcox didn't bring one of her instruments to a class the next day, Galway insisted she play one of his custom-made gold flutes .
VIOLAINE MICHEL , first violin
From: Lisieux, France
Michel grew up in a town in Normandy before moving to Montreal in 1996. She came to Richmond five years ago, when her husband started teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is teaching at Heartwood Grove French Immersion School in Richmond.
She's also joining RSO's violin section. Michel was one of the 13 new musicians hired in the spring. She became interested in trying out for RSO after hearing Takayama play a Mendelssohn piece in 2012.
"I heard her and was really happy and impressed," she said.
She's grateful for the chance to shine in Roanoke. "It's not that easy to find an orchestra to play in."
Michel will make her official debut with the symphony at the opening night concert Oct. 7.
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