A recent press release announced an upcoming concert by the Warwick Symphony Orchestra and the West Bay Chorale.
The fact the two groups are performing together is new, which caught our attention, and then there was the program.
Instead of the usual “old warhorse” compositions from Bach, Mozart or Vivaldi that are the staple of amateur orchestras around the world, this program featured no composers born before 1900. The closest it came to being pre-modern was Aaron Copeland, who barely managed to be born in the 20th Century.
“Under the musical direction of conductor Catherine Gagnon, the Warwick Symphony Orchestra and the West Bay Chorale join forces for a mid-winter series of concerts entitled Old England…New England. With two performances on Saturday, March 29 at St. Kevin Church, Sandy Lane in Warwick, and Sunday, March 30 at Community College of Rhode Island Knight Campus, Bobby Hackett Theater, East Avenue in Warwick, the orchestra and chorus combine for a performance of the ‘Requiem’ by John Rutter featuring Amanda Santo, music director of the Chorale, as the soprano soloist.”
You could cavil about March 29 not actually being “mid-winter,” but considering the way weather has been behaving recently, a polar vortex after March 21 is not impossible; but dates aside, the program does hint at a fresh beginning for the Warwick Symphony. Britten, Copeland, Rutter and Fritz are not names that casual concertgoers will be familiar with. Amateur orchestras tend to stick with a repertoire of music that is familiar to the players and the audience. The above-mentioned composers are rare enough among professional orchestras because of the technical skills required to perform them, but Gagnon said the orchestra is up to the task.
“I wanted to challenge them,” said Catherine Gagnon, who has been the music director and conductor of the group since 2011. “We have some really excellent players in the orchestra and they can play the music, they just haven’t been challenged enough in the past.”
Although the orchestra is described as being amateur, many of its members do make a living in music, mostly by teaching privately or in schools and are beyond being merely competent. Gagnon herself, for example, can hardly be described as an amateur.
A resident of Kingston, she operates a small bed and breakfast in the historic village while continuing her professional work in music. She is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island with bachelor and master degrees in music education with concentrations in French horn and conducting. She is the director of music at St. Raphael’s in Pawtucket.
As a conductor, Gagnon has led many student ensembles as part of the Ocean State Youth Orchestra Program from 2000 to 2006, the 2003 Rhode Island Junior All-State Orchestra, the 2004 and 2008 Connecticut Eastern Regional Middle School Festival Orchestra, and the 2010 Massachusetts Western and 2012 Massachusetts Northeastern District Junior Festival Orchestras. She also served as an assistant conductor with the West Bay Chorale, the URI Symphony Orchestra, and the URI Symphonic Wind Ensemble.
As a performer of both French horn and piano, she has played for the Ocean State Chamber Orchestra, the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and the Fall River Symphony Orchestra, among others. She has played with the Ocean State Lyric Opera, the Little Theater of Fall River and Brown University Opera and chamber music performances.
Piano as an instrument for a conductor is relatively common. The French horn is not noted for the number of conductors that play it, which is one reason that Gagnon chose the instrument.
She grew up in Chicopee, Mass., in a family of educators who encouraged her to pursue a career in the arts.
“I stated playing piano at 7, but as I was growing up I realized I wanted to be in a group. I’m an ensemble player and French horn is very much an ensemble instrument,” she said. “I have played solos, but I never wanted to be a soloist.”
Gagnon said she is still enthralled with the way the horn sounds and how it lends color to the orchestra. The valves on a modern French horn allow the player to change pitch quickly, but Gagnon still employs some of the oldest techniques for lending variety to the sound.
“A player can use a hand inside the bell to shape and bend the pitch and find the harmonics for its [the horn] natural notes,” she said.
One of the things a horn player can’t do is effectively conduct the orchestra from inside the brass section, the way some pianist-conductors do. But she insists that horn players can affect the sound and attitude of an orchestra for better or worse.
“They can lead from behind,” she said with a smile.
The Warwick Symphony Orchestra started life as the “Warwick Civic Orchestra” in 1966. “The idea was George Low’s,” according to the orchestra’s website. Low was supervisor of music for Warwick schools.
“‘It seemed a waste of time to teach these kids so much in high school and then see so many of them give it up,’ he said, adding that some continue to play in college ‘but stop after they get married. Playing an instrument is something like riding a bicycle. Once you learn it, you never forget it.’”
By the time of the first concert on Dec. 15, they had 30 members. In 1987 the name was changed to the Warwick Symphony Orchestra (WSO). Today there are approximately twice as many members as 1966. The purpose remains the same, “to bring together … musicians who have no other organized groups with which to perform.”
Today, as it has from its inception, the orchestra performs at a variety of convenient and accessible locations, including senior centers, schools, worship centers and public parks, bringing a wide sampling of symphonic music to audiences - many of whom might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend live concert performances.
On March 29, fittingly, the orchestra and chorus will perform a “Requiem” by John Rutter.
“He’s mostly known for choral and church music,” said Gagnon. “He is a highly respected and well known church composer here and in England.”
Rutter was commissioned to write an anthem for Queen Elisabeth II’s Golden Jubilee and another for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
But Gagnon is eager to say that the program at St. Kevin’s won’t be all requiem. The 60-member orchestra and 30-member West Bay Chorale will also present:
Five Courtly Dances from “Gloriana” by Benjamin Britten; “An Outdoor Overture” by Aaron Copland; “Wollaston Beach” by Gregory Fritz; and “Long Time Ago,” “Zion’s Walls,” “At the River,” and “Ching-a-ring Chaw,” vocal selections by Copland.
Needless to say, the work will be challenging but Gagnon believes the orchestra can do it.
“We have played challenging pieces before, like the Strauss Horn Concerto,” said Gagnon. “It was divine.”
But the WSO is looking to some much more light-hearted fare for their “Pops” performances.
“We are actually going to do music from Journey [pop rock band] and the Beatles for the ‘Spring Pops’” said Gagnon, who wants to have as broad an audience as she can without compromising the quality of the more serious music.
“Part of our mission is to develop new audiences for live concerts,” she said. “The opportunity to come and hear a live musical performance is something that is slipping away from us.”
The two series performances will take place on Saturday, March 29 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Kevin Church, 333 Sandy Lane in Warwick, and at the CCRI Knight Campus on East Avenue in Warwick at 3 p.m. on March 30. For more information about the performances, visit www.WSORI.org or www.WestBayChorale.org.