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Symphony orchestras survive, thrive in smaller Western Pa. communities

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, July 9, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Music director Morrie Band works through rehearsal during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Music director Morrie Band works through rehearsal during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Music director Morrie Band works through rehearsal during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Music director Morrie Band works through rehearsal during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Charles Henry, 85, of Greensburg, plays his viola during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Charles Henry, 85, of Greensburg, plays his viola during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Maddox Maruca, 12, of Connellsville, performs with her cello during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Maddox Maruca, 12, of Connellsville, performs with her cello during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
A sketch of the seating arrangement  used by music director Morrie Band, during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
A sketch of the seating arrangement used by music director Morrie Band, during the Westmoreland Summer Philharmonic’s rehearsal at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Ron Horner of Somerset, principal timpanist of the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, performs the 'Olympic Fanfare' during their 'summer sparklers program' in St. Clair Park in Greensburg on Saturday, July 2, 2016.
Patrick Connolly | Tribune-Review
Ron Horner of Somerset, principal timpanist of the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, performs the 'Olympic Fanfare' during their 'summer sparklers program' in St. Clair Park in Greensburg on Saturday, July 2, 2016.

Their day jobs vary.

They're teachers, accountants, technology specialists.

Others patch together lives fully from the musical world, picking up paychecks from multiple symphony orchestras, serving as church music directors, mentoring private students or working as instructors in university music programs.

But there is a common thread among the scores of professional musicians who fill the seats in small-town symphony orchestras — their passion for making music.

Even those waving the baton in front of orchestras in communities such as Greensburg, Johnstown, Altoona, Erie, Wheeling and Butler often wear many hats in the musical world.

“That's the life of a symphony conductor,” said Daniel Meyer of Pittsburgh, who serves as music director of the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, the Erie Philharmonic and the Asheville, N.C., Symphony Orchestra.

But that's OK with Meyer and others who see their smaller, local symphonies thriving while some of the nation's most prestigious orchestras teeter financially because of legacy costs, contentious contract negotiations and the cost of maintaining concert halls.

With more than 105,000 musicians performing in 1,200 orchestras across the country last year, regional and small-town orchestras that operate on small but innovative budgets, have become the rule, rather than the exception.

Two-thirds of the nation's symphony orchestras operate on less than $300,000 a year, according to the League of American Orchestras. Their business model — paying professional musicians for each performance rather than a salary, reaching out to corporate sponsors, foundations, state and local governments, building on relations with longtime subscribers and nurturing a passion for music among a new generation of music lovers — has kept them strong even as major orchestras in cities such as Louisville, Philadelphia, New York, Tampa and San Jose have filed for bankruptcy in the last decade.

Meanwhile, many of the smaller orchestras in this region have tapped the wealth of local talent, including music faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and West Virginia universities, many of whom play in multiple small-town orchestras across the tri-state area.

“There was a study a while back that said the number of people with music performance degrees with full-time employment was 8 percent. I don't think much has changed,” said Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Warren Davidson.

Davidson, who plays first chair violin, is an assistant professor at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.

He teaches violin in the school's music department when he's not playing or conducting with local groups ranging from the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra to the Academy Chamber Orchestra and the occasional peculiar thing, like filling in with a tango band in Cleveland.

Although the availability of professional musicians is important, other factors are just as critical to the survival of the region's small symphonies, Meyer said.

“In my mind, there are a couple of factors why we survive,” the music director said. “One is the passion and interest of the community. In Greensburg, there is a real desire for great symphonic music and a real passion for learning stringed instruments. People know what music can do for their lives and their children.”

That matters more than ever in communities where tough economic times and other influences have made it challenging to sustain arts programs.

In Johnstown, the symphony founded 88 years ago has survived two lethal floods and the collapse of the steel industry. But the group is a point of civic pride even as the population of the town declined by two thirds, from more than 60,000 in 1960 to about 20,400 today.

While the mills went cold and downtown businesses were shuttered, the orchestra spawned a youth symphony — the Inclined to Sing choral group — and an amateur community strings group.

Last month, officials announced the appointment of a new conductor.

Symphony manager Elizabeth Pile said Maestro James Blachly, 36, will take the podium as the eighth music director of the orchestra when it opens its 89th season this fall.

Like Meyer, Blachly wears multiple hats — he's music director of the New York City-based Experiential Orchestra, music director of the Geneva Light Opera and co-artistic director of The Dream Unfinished, a social justice orchestra, also in New York.

“He's here a couple of days a week and he has wonderful ideas to do new things to reach a younger audience,” Pile said.

Following the lead of major orchestras, most of the region's small-town symphonies have expanded well beyond the classics.

A recent performance by the Butler County Symphony Orchestra, now in its 68th season, featured the works of composer John Williams, who penned the scores for popular films such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” It tapped a whole new audience, said orchestra spokesman Connie Downs.

“The local chapter of the 501st Garrison Carida, a group of fans who dress in Star Wars costumes, came out for that one,” Downs said.

They may have raised a few eyebrows, but then again, it's proof of the universal reach of music and one of the reasons small-town symphony orchestras continue to thrive, Downs said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com

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