Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Sage City Symphony

For two years, perhaps three, I played trumpet with the Sage City Symphony. Why it is called the “Sage City Symphony” I do not know, as it is located in Bennington, Vermont, and is associated with Bennington College. At the time – the late 1970s and early 1980s – I was living in Troy, New York, where I was on the faculty in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The department administrator, Bernice Cohen, played French horn, as did her husband, Gerry, music director at a local high school. She invited me to play in the orchestra.

That’s how it was. No audition. I just got in the car with Bernice and Gerry and showed up for rehearsal one day. That was that.

It was a community orchestra drawing its members from Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts. Here’s the mission statement:
The mission of the Sage City Symphony is to provide high quality orchestral music to the residents of Bennington County and its surrounding area, to provide an opportunity for musicians of various skill levels to play orchestral music, and to commission new orchestral works which will be performed by the Sage City Symphony.
That’s what it’s about, musicians of various skill levels, and new music.

Of course, we performed the standard repertoire. I specifically remember Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Schubert’s Unfinished, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and, just a tad off the standard repertoire, the Schuman orchestration of Ives’s Theme and Variations on America. The last was a hoot and a half, in part because there’s a passage near the end where the trumpet has the melody and I could bear down and drive the orchestra like a lead trumpeter driving a big band. The string section didn’t know quite what to make of it, but the director had no problem. What fun. We must have played some Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Bach, and Tchaikovsky too, but I don’t remember specific pieces.

And then there was Carl Ruggles, Sun-Treader. Not the standard repertoire, not at all.

I remember patches of black ink scattered across the page. Somehow we were expected to translate them into things we could do with our instruments. Don’t know how we managed to play it. Some of use could just barely play our instruments.

But not all of us. The cello section, for example, had some first-rank professional players, generally a Finckel or two, and Maxine Neuman. They were on the faculty at Bennington, as were other players here and there. Some Bennington students too. The other trumpeter, who played principal, was a music major at the University of Vermont. The second violin section seemed to be filled out by kids who’d only been playing for a year or three. And every skill level in-between. No one condescended to the kids, no one kowtowed to the pros. It was a nice mix.

It was founded and conducted by Lou Calabro, who was on the faculty at Bennington. He was also a composer and we played some of his compositions. Or, I should say, the Sage City Symphony played some of his compositions, but I only remember one during the years I was there, Triple Concerto for Three Cellos and Orchestra, Opus 50. It was written for George Finckel, a cellist on the faculty at Bennington who also played in the orchestra. As I somewhat vaguely recall there was at least one section where we could go nuts, playing whatever. I was good at that, going nuts. Still am. I think there may have been an Otto Leuning piece on that particular program as well.

All of which is to say, real people playing real music. Sure, there were a lot of monuments on the bill, had to be, nature of the classical beast. But they weren’t treated as monuments. They were treated as living music. And the musicians were of and in the community where we performed. Sure, a couple had careers based in New York City and had to commute in. But, still, members of the community, albeit a geographically dispersed community.

All together one of the healthiest groups I’ve been in. Still don’t know where the “sage” comes from, though.

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