The latest season of this Rock County symphony brings a mix of tradition, education and inspiration on a musical journey unlike any other.
Rob Tomaro and Sara Lemen are deep in conversation in a cacophonous coffee shop in downtown Beloit. Amidst the clatter of coffee cups and the chatter of patrons, Tomaro, music director for the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra, begins a story about Tchaikovsky, the celebrated Russian composer. As his tale unfolds, the surrounding bedlam seems to fade into the background and his voice rises above the din. It’s almost as if Tomaro’s ability to capture and direct the focus of a room full of musicians somehow also works on caffeinated diners.
“At the end of the 19th century there was what was called ‘the Gang of Five’ Russian composers. It was Cesar Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Mussorgsky and Borodin,” he recounts, while Lemen, the orchestra’s executive director, listens intently. “They were always trying to steal Tchaikovsky’s thunder. He was on the outside, looking in.”
It was on a trip to Paris that Tchaikovsky discovered a secret weapon he could use to muscle his way into this clique. It was a tiny instrument, somewhere between a piano and a glockenspiel, known as a Celesta.
“It was a little keyboard that made a sound like tinkling bells,” says Tomaro. “He said, ‘I’ve got to have this,’ but he knew that, if he brought it back to Russia, one of the five composers would find out about it at the first rehearsal and try to beat him to the punch.”
Tchaikovsky solved his dilemma by smuggling the instrument into Russia in a box labeled “farm implements.” After a series of closed rehearsals, he debuted the instrument to the country in “The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy,” part of his newest ballet, “The Nutcracker.” History was made and Tchaikovsky became his own one-man gang.
“You can’t go anywhere at Christmas without hearing Tchaikovsky,” says Tomaro. “How many Balakirev symphonies do you know?”
This story of innovation and progress in the midst of steadfast tradition is a microcosm of the Beloit Janesville Symphony’s 70th anniversary season. To celebrate this important landmark, the orchestra is taking a step forward while looking back at the proud history that got it here.
“The orchestra is re-energizing,” says Lemen. “We’re finding ways to remain true to the classical component of what orchestras do for the community, but also focus on education.”
Part of this new focus involves pre-concert lectures by Tomaro, where audiences can learn the fascinating stories behind some of their favorite classical pieces – like Tchaikovsky’s Celesta.
“Anybody can come in and learn,” says Lemen. “You don’t have to be a virtuoso to know more about Tchaikovsky, but it adds a new level of interest if you have a little background.”
With this new focus on education, it’s a tad ironic that the symphony’s newest venue is an academic institution, the new conference center on the campus of Blackhawk Technical College, 6004 S. County Road G, in Janesville. Despite its Janesville address, the college is situated almost exactly between Janesville and Beloit, giving audiences a concert experience that is as convenient as it is cultural.
“I am thrilled for Blackhawk to partner with the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra. Through this collaboration, we aim to foster a deeper appreciation for the arts while enriching the cultural fabric of our campus and beyond,” says Dr. Tracy Pierner, president of Blackhawk Technical College. “We are excited to create a platform where the symphony’s performances can inspire and uplift students, faculty, staff and all those who join us.”
Lemen and Tomaro are also excited.
“It’s a wonderful partnership,” says Lemen.
The symphony’s current season kicked off on July 4 with Pops on the Rock at Riverside Park, an annual tradition that featured patriotic music, fireworks and a number of solos from one of Beloit’s most famous musicians.
“One of our favorite soloists, Tony Scodwell, is an internationally famous lead trumpet player and Beloit native. He performed several pieces with us,” says Tomaro.
Scodwell has appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and also makes high-quality custom brass instruments. He recently made another significant contribution to the symphony.
“He is a wonderful donor to the symphony who has helped us sustain our season,” says Tomaro. “His grant enabled us to give a great increase in pay to musicians across the board. It’s been a tremendous boost.”
The orchestra’s second concert, on Oct. 8, centered around Tchaikovsky. The composer takes centerstage again from Dec. 15 to 17 when the Beloit Janesville Symphony presents the Nutcracker ballet at the Janesville Performing Arts Center, 408 S. Main St., in Janesville.
“We seem to be celebrating Russian music which, given the cultural and political climate today, seems really apropos,” says Tomaro. “The music that came out of late 19th century and early 20th century Russia has really informed classical composition, even more so much of the western European music at that time.”
On March 24, the orchestra is back at Blackhawk Technical College for “Freedom & Love,” a concert that features the works of Wagner, Brahms and Shostakovich, another Russian composer who weathered the turmoil of his times.
“Shostakovich would compose at his kitchen table with a suitcase by the back door,” says Tomaro. “He was ready to escape at 2 in the morning if the KGB came knocking at his door.”
The carefully selected soundtracks this season are, in many ways, a celebration of the freedom and togetherness that can be found in music.
“Music unifies. It brings people together from different parts of a community,” says Lemen. “Music doesn’t care who you vote for. It doesn’t care about your personal life.”
Entering her third season as executive director for the orchestra, it is this unification and freedom that excites her. Lemen’s first concert with the orchestra was during its outdoor concert on July 4, 2021. After months of uncertainty due to the COVID pandemic, she was welcomed with a celebration of togetherness and liberty firsthand.
“The people of Janesville were so excited to be there,” she says. “They were running up to us to donate.”
When she attended her first rehearsal she was also impressed with the quality of the orchestra’s musicians.
“The first rehearsal stood out to me,” she says. “We could have made a concert out of it. They were so good. Their sound is so rich.”
For Tomaro, that first impression represents a pride and professionalism that was years in the making.
“When I first arrived, I looked around and thought, ‘There’s a new sheriff in town,’” he says. “The players are remarkably prepared because they know I begin at 60 miles per hour.”
Lemen and Tomaro both know the culture that’s been carefully created in the rehearsal room also shines on the stage and spreads to the audience. Adding to it is a commitment to portray bold new works and an educational spin.
“The goal is to have a repertoire that challenges our accomplished musicians and incorporates music that our audiences recognize,” says Lemen. “So, when a kid sees a concert, they’ll say, ‘Cool, I know that song. But wow, that other piece was really great. I’ve never heard that before.’”
For Tomaro, all that’s needed to create new believers is for music lovers to buy a ticket and see for themselves what 70 years of passion can accomplish.
“I invite everybody to come out to see the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra,” he says. “It’s worth the hike, and this orchestra is presenting a glowing and beautiful season.”