What began as a group of talented amateurs is today a fully professional orchestra, engaged with its community and focused on the future. Learn how its conductor — just the third in its history — is planning a gala season.
The Beloit Janesville Symphony (BJS) celebrates its Diamond Jubilee this season. And while the 60th anniversary invites reflection on both the past and present, at the same time, a new administration is busy mapping out a strategy for the future.
“It’s very exciting and unique to reach a milestone like this, for any music organization,” says Robert Tomaro, BJS conductor and music director since 1999. “It says a great deal – about our community support, the organization’s resilience and its deft management.”
Heading up that management during this landmark year is Michael Krueger, who came on as executive director in March. While he’s excited about implementing new programs to expand the orchestra’s audience, he wants to make certain that, right now, the spotlight is directly on the Diamond Jubilee celebration.
“It’s interesting for me, because I’ve been able to join the symphony at its musical pinnacle, with one of the most significant events in its history planned,” Krueger says. “I’ve only been here since March, but I’ve already been on the radio and TV and other places, talking about the anniversary. It’s an honor to come in at such a high point.”
Since its founding as the Beloit Civic Symphony in 1953, BJS has grown from a group of 35 talented amateur players to a respected professional orchestra of more than 80 experienced musicians. Along with founder Lewis Dalvit and his successor, Crawford Gates, Tomaro is one of only three conductors in the history of BJS.
“People may not realize just how amazing that is,” Tomaro says. “The usual number is 15, for most orchestras of this size and tenure. That we’ve had only three speaks to the ability of the administration and board to support the director and help him to achieve his vision and to grow.”
The Diamond Jubilee observance begins with the Gala Celebration on Sept. 20, a dinner at Beloit Country Club for friends, musicians, patrons and fans. The event, which is expected to sell out quickly, includes the premiere screening of a documentary film about the orchestra and its conductors.
Then, on Sept. 21, at 3 p.m., the orchestra performs at Beloit Memorial High School, in a concert that has each of the three conductors directing a program or piece that is especially meaningful for him.
“I am humbled to be a part of such a landmark program,” Tomaro says. “Around here, it’s referred to as ‘The Three Tenors’ without singing! The idea came out of one meeting and gathered momentum. We had Crawford as a guest for the 50th anniversary, but Lewis Dalvit was unavailable. To have all three conductors here this year, I believe, embodies the history of the orchestra.”
Tomaro says that under the leadership of Dalvit and Crawford, the orchestra grew both in musicianship and scope, and he has endeavored to continue their progress. “It was in great shape then, and it’s gotten even better since I came on in Fall 1999,” he says. “I’ve witnessed dramatic artistic growth, and we’ve gained a very positive reputation in the musician community that facilitates growth. My work has been to build on the legacy of both past conductors.”
The orchestra performs four traditional concerts this season, alternating between venues in Beloit and Janesville, as well as a Patriotic Pops Concert on July 3 in Janesville and July 4 in Beloit. Also, for the ninth year, BJS will provide the live soundtrack to a classic silent movie during the Beloit International Film Fest on Feb. 22, 2014. In addition, they played for visitors at the 2013 Rock County 4-H Fair.
“We’re always working to expand our audience base, to bring orchestral music to unfamiliar ears,” Tomaro says. “Scott Davis, in charge of talent for the fair, saw our ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ in 2011 and asked us to perform that program this year. We had a delightful, receptive audience who were attentive and joyful, and our music just boomed across the open field. The Rock County Fair was wonderful!”
And it’s just the kind of performance Krueger wants to build on. “We want to bring the music and its message to a broader audience,” he says. “We have plans in the works, to take the organization in a new direction and provide a wide array of series offerings. The orchestra’s talent level is amazing. I’m not sure people realize the caliber of musicianship.”
Though he spent the past 27 years in banking, Krueger’s new position in Beloit has him on familiar ground. He attended college on a full music scholarship, and he’s played double bass for both the Kenosha and Racine symphony orchestras. He’s also served on several symphony boards, and he has a small business repairing instruments.
“I’ve been passionate about the arts my entire life, and music is my main love,” he says. “The adjustment here is switching from working with the $10 million budget at my other company. I need to be very aware of available resources and use them optimally. One of my first goals is to bring the administration’s management level up to the orchestra’s musical level.”
Beyond concerts, BJS community outreach includes an annual Student Concerto Competition, and appearances by mascot Maestro Mouse, who pops in at concerts and other community events, and even attends “Simply Symphony Storytime” at the Beloit Public Library.
And there’s Composing Kids: Making Music with the Maestro, a program which Tomaro helped to develop and of which he is especially proud.
“Greg Gerard, our director of operations, goes into the schools with a computer, just goes into a fifth-grade classroom of kids that have never had music composition,” Tomaro explains. “He gets them on a keyboard that’s interactive with the computer and spends five minutes with each student, who creates a phrase of music. We put it all together with orchestration and perform it in concert for the first time for the entire school. We’re very proud of this program. It’s unique. We’re the only ones in the country to have it.”
Within the organization, Tomaro chooses each season’s offerings, and Krueger and the board attend to all other elements. “We deal with all elements not artistic, and collaborate with the artistic side to bring it all together,” Krueger says. “It’s a team effort, and we work as a family. Rob gives his dream for the season, and we do what we can to make it happen.”
Says Tomaro: “Collaborating with Michael on an artistic level is an absolute joy. He and the board and everyone work to help to support my vision.”
Defining that vision is another major goal. “We have to set the entire organizational vision for the future,” Krueger says.
Part of that vision is to extend the organization’s reach into the surrounding communities.
“Even at the start, the orchestra played throughout the region, and we will do more of that,” Tomaro says. “Our culture is a synthesis of both the popular and the historic, and the orchestra personifies the blending of the two. It extends to embrace the entire area and make it unique. And I’d like to let everyone know that this is a great opportunity to dip your toe into the symphonic pool.”
Adds Krueger: “Rob brings his artistic vision, and I talk about the economic impact. Music – all of the arts – makes our cities better places to live, to work, to visit. The community doesn’t owe us anything. We have an obligation to better the area. In general, the scope of the word ‘art’ has become limited. We need to broaden the experience and delivery of the arts, make them accessible to everyone.”
That mission has been ongoing, with offerings such as the patriotic pops concert, the Silent Movie Showcase and “Hooray for Hollywood” program. Krueger sees great potential for even more varied programming and outreach.
So, even as they celebrate the orchestra’s historic high points during this Diamond Jubilee season, Krueger, Tomaro and the rest of the BJS organization are focused on raising it to the next level.