Arts & Entertainment

Rockford Symphony Orchestra: 80 Years of Playing

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Through 80 years of musical outreach, the Rockford Symphony Orchestra has made itself a staple in the region. Learn more about its long history, the music director behind its recent growth and what’s in store for its anniversary season.

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Maestro Steven Larsen stands with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra at its home venue, The Coronado Performing Arts Center, Rockford.

A little more than 80 years ago, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of local business leaders established an orchestra to enrich the cultural life of the community. Since 1934, it has evolved with our region’s changing tastes and needs, but its original purpose remains steady.

During their 2014-15 milestone season, musicians and staff members of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra (RSO) reflected on the deep history and bright future of the organization that means so much to local residents. Now the third-largest orchestra in the state and a leading force in the community, the RSO has attracted national attention both for its high caliber and deep involvement with the community that so faithfully supports it.

“The support for the orchestra throughout the community has really solidified over the past 10 or 20 years,” says Steven Larsen, RSO conductor. “I think the orchestra plays better now than it ever has, so in that sense, I think our 80th year was our best.”

Collaborative Beginnings

The group’s first performance was on May 20, 1934, with 40 musicians under the direction of Rockford College Professor Andreas Fugmann at the Rockford Theatre, 317 Park Ave. The following year, the orchestra attracted the attention of local businessmen, who established the Civic Symphony Group, a committee to fundraise and develop the orchestra. By 1936, more musicians joined to form a full orchestra of 70 members, who performed two or three concerts per season. Homefront challenges of World War II caused the orchestra to take its one and only recess, in August 1940. By May 1943, it returned with a new conductor, Arthur Zack.

During the next several decades, the orchestra grew along with the Rockford area. Each season saw new members and new guest musicians. On June 5, 1950, the Sinnissippi Orchestra Shell was dedicated, after years of fundraising, providing the orchestra with a popular warm weather venue. The orchestra took on greater and more complicated projects, performing at festivals, producing operas and welcoming celebrity guests. In 1964, the Rockford Symphony Youth Orchestra debuted. The orchestra accomplished all of these milestones with the passionate support of its fan base and the greater community.

In 1970, after 27 years at the helm, Zack retired. The orchestra welcomed its third music director, Dr. Crawford Gates. The ’70s also brought a budget of $100,000, making the RSO a “metropolitan” orchestra, with higher standards and greater aspirations. In 1973, RSO entered the national spotlight when a special edition of Newsweek magazine, titled “Arts in America,” featured the orchestra. A new pops concert series for young people called Kinderkonzerts attracted the region’s children to the arts and earned the orchestra many awards.

“As we were looking back over the past 80 years, it really struck me what a significant role education played in the Rockford Symphony,” says Julie Thomas, RSO executive director.

By the orchestra’s 50th anniversary in 1983, the RSO was still growing its operating budget and performing with bigger and better names, like Dionne Warwick, Herbie Mann and Carol Lawrence. A lingering recession and the brief leadership of the orchestra’s fourth conductor, Charles Zachary Bornstein, caused tension among organization members. But by 1991, the RSO board of directors hired Steven Larsen to become the fifth and current music director, ushering in one of the strongest chapters of the orchestra’s history.

Recent decades brought a high level of collaboration with other local artists. Rockford’s Rick Nielsen, lead guitarist for Cheap Trick, performed an RSO Electric Concerto in the early 1990s. Kinderkonzerts attracted large audiences. In 2004, RSO and Rockford Dance Company began annual productions of “The Nutcracker.” In 2005, Larsen oversaw a community-wide celebration of the 250th birthday of Mozart.

The new millennium also brought an exciting move to a resident venue, after the Coronado Performing Arts Center received an $18.5 million renovation. The state-of-the-art performance center stirred new interest in the RSO and caused ticket sales and the orchestra’s budget to climb. As the orchestra’s quality rose, it earned several awards, including some from the Illinois Council of Orchestras.

Making the most of this momentum, the organization took a major step to stabilize its financial future. In 2008, the Rockford Symphony Orchestra Foundation, a 501c(3) corporation, was established along with an endowment campaign.

Performing in the Present Day

The RSO has yet to slow down. The current decade has brought more creative programming, projects and events, including the RSO’s first DVD and its competitive performance show “RSO Star” in 2011. Along with its continued Youth Concerts, the RSO began a collaboration with Carnegie Hall through its “Link Up” program and introduced a new family-friendly Symphony Saturdays series.

RSO also is introducing Access RSO, a new program providing underserved members of the community with easier access to performances. This will include bridging cost, language, age and exposure barriers.

“The feedback for this has been very positive, and the significant grant we’ve received through the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois for it is a very good indication of community support,” Thomas says. “The orchestra was created for our community, and we have to make sure that everyone in our community has a way to enjoy it.”

Bridging gaps among community sectors is a cornerstone of the orchestra’s mission. Reflecting on the 80th season, Larsen believes it led to one of his best-ever moments of conducting, during the Jan. 10 “The Genius of John Williams” concert.

“We had people in their 60s who were big John Williams fans, down to grade-school kids who came in ‘Star Wars’ costumes because they were so excited about the concert,” says Larsen. “It was just like a Beatles tribute band concert we did several years ago … The thing I remember most vividly was, in the front row, there were probably four generations of a family, and the oldest generation and youngest generation were sitting there at the beginning looking very unhappy to be there. But by the end of the concert, they were all up and dancing.”

Looking forward, the RSO hopes to strengthen ties even further with the community that has supported it for so long, says Thomas. “We want more people enjoying the music we’re producing. And we’re doing that by making sure we’re out in the community with board and staff members, and musicians, letting people know why they might enjoy classical music.”

For its 80th anniversary, the organization published a commemorative book titled “The First Eighty Years” to document its long history. Materials were largely pulled from a donated collection from the late Lois McDowell, a former RSO musician. Members of the Land of Lincoln Theatre Organ Society spent weeks cataloging the donation at the Coronado and made it available to the RSO.

The commemorative book is available for purchase online and at RSO performances.

The Rockford community has changed immensely in 80 years, and those changes have been reflected in the orchestra. With a better understanding of its past, the orchestra looks forward to sharing more of the diverse cultural and artistic works that have already brightened so many lives.

Maestro Steven Larsen: 25 Years of Sharing the Joy of Music

When it comes to criticizing Steven Larsen, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to say.

But to start off his 25th season with the RSO, a Sept. 18 “Roast the Maestro” event at Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center will allow friends, colleagues and surprise guests to poke light-hearted fun at the orchestra’s fifth and current music director.

It’s a telling reflection of the relationships Larsen has cemented with orchestra and community members since coming here in 1991.

“I think people really enjoy working with him because he’s such a down-to-earth guy,” says Julie Thomas, RSO executive director since 2009. “It’s his style; he relates so well to the musicians and the audience.”

The RSO has enjoyed a rapid growth spurt during the past 25 years, which has much to do with Larsen’s leadership. Since his arrival, the orchestra’s audience size has tripled and its annual budget has risen from $250,000 to more than $1 million. Each season has expanded with more styles, performances and musicians, making RSO the third-largest orchestra in the state. For his energetic conducting of a diverse range of styles, the Illinois Council of Orchestras named him “Illinois Conductor of the Year” in 1999 and 2006. Under his leadership, the RSO was named “Illinois Orchestra of the Year” in 2007.

“Maestro Larsen has, without a doubt, brought the orchestra to a new level of performance,” says Thomas. “It’s really considered a very fine orchestra, and it has a lot to do with him.”

Larsen has worked hard to dispel the idea that classical music is a haughty affair. He designs each RSO season to engage a wide range of audience members.

“We work very hard on perfecting the music, but it doesn’t mean we have to be serious every moment,” says Larsen. “We’re not making high art, necessarily; we’re having a good time.”

This approach led him to introduce the pops series and to collaborate in interesting ways with other local arts organizations. During his watch, the orchestra began presenting full operas and ballets, including annual Christmastime performances of “The Nutcracker” in collaboration with the Rockford Dance Company.

With each new venture, the skill level and musicianship of the orchestra has grown. RSO often receives positive feedback from attendees, especially newcomers who have enjoyed orchestra subscriptions in other cities and favorably compare it to the likes of Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Larsen is gracious in his response to such flattery.

“It’s just such a delight to conduct the musicians because I really don’t have to work very hard,” he says. “It just all comes out. I’m creative really only after someone else has done a little bit of work – so I’m re-creative.”

His easy-going nature is refreshing to RSO musicians.

“We really fell in love with Larsen the moment after he arrived,” says Kerry Knodle, RSO percussionist for more than 30 years. “He has the ability to demand excellence, while also making musicians feel good about what they’re doing.”

The camaraderie within the orchestra has resulted in a high retention rate. Some musicians still return after decades of performing. Knodle says it’s based on the mutual respect maintained between conductor and performers. The musicians are glad Larsen has chosen to stay in Rockford; they know he hasn’t lacked opportunity elsewhere.

The orchestra’s conviviality is one reason Larsen stays.

“It’s also the collegiality, the atmosphere, the warmth of the community toward the orchestra,” he says.

Even after 25 years, Larsen wants to find new ways to connect with various pockets of the community and make the RSO accessible to anyone interested in music. Youth outreach and education remain important aspects of the orchestra’s mission, as evidenced by John Williams-themed concerts with costumed “Star Wars” characters and the existence of the vibrant Rockford Symphony Youth Orchestra. Larsen hopes to expose others to a passion he didn’t discover until his late teens.

Although he played trumpet in grade school, it wasn’t until Larsen heard the cover songs of Emerson, Lake & Palmer that he fell in love with classical music. A Chicago native, he eventually switched his major from pre-med to music theory and composition, graduating from Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music in 1975.

Larsen then earned the first M.M. in orchestral conducting from Northwestern University, in 1979, and became an education fellow for the Summer Conductors Institute. He spent 13 years as resident conductor and artistic administrator for the Chicago Opera Theatre before joining RSO.

Looking to his 25th year and beyond, Larsen is focused on identifying the programming he’s always wanted to conduct before he retires. Every season, he tries to pair classic, recognizable pieces with lesser-known, more experimental works, not only to entertain audiences but to educate them.

Larsen knows this approach sometimes makes audience members uncomfortable, but also knows that providing a context for those selections opens up attendees to new sounds and styles.

It’s all to share the deep and evolving connection that he personally feels for the music.

“You want everybody else to learn how much you love it, what you’re doing,” Larsen says. “So I think that’s really the source of it. I want everybody to have the same type of joy that I do and to have it mean as much to them.”

The 2015-2016 Season Ahead

Anniversary or not, RSO always aims to deliver an engaging season of new pieces, pairings and events.

The 2015-16 season kicks off with a classic concert featuring two pieces Larsen says “most conductors will say are right at the top of the list of their favorite pieces to conduct.” Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor have been on Larsen’s to-do list for nearly 15 years, since he last performed them with the RSO.

“They’re a challenge to play and a challenge to conduct,” he says. “Interpretively, they’re bottomless.”

This season will also take the orchestra outside the Coronado. New this year, two sets of chamber orchestra concerts will be performed in January and March at Westminster Presbyterian Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. Both concert sets will allow for a smaller orchestra to perform baroque and romantic pieces uncommon for an RSO concert.

“This gives us a chance to try two dates that we don’t usually perform on, and see what kind of interest there is,” says Larsen. “I really want to see how the community looks at this and how they respond to it.”

The Pops Series will include the Cirque de la Symphonie on Oct. 24, combining choreographed circus acrobatics and dance with classical and contemporary music by RSO. The Magical Music of Disney, on April 2, will bring to life the favorite soundtracks of beloved Disney animated films.

The season will cap off with a special performance with Emily Bear on April 30. It’s been about two years since Rockford’s young virtuoso performed with the orchestra, but she’s a guest musician Larsen always considers when programming each season. This year, Bear will perform her own composition, Les Voyages, along with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, for the much-anticipated final performance.

“She’ll be playing, and she’ll look over at somebody in the orchestra and smile at them,” says Larsen.

“You’re just not used to seeing a kid do that, or any soloist, really, but that’s Emily.”

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