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Volume 24, Number 3 — March 2017

Cornelia Laemmli Orth leads symphony

The Symphony of the Mountains celebrates the holidays with
The Symphony of the Mountains celebrates the holidays with "A Down Home Christmas" concert.

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | November 26, 2014

Her eyes twinkle, her hands wave, and her fingers play rhythms on the tabletop when you talk to Cornelia Laemmli Orth about her favorite topic – The Symphony of the Mountains.

As she talks about the power of music to transform people, she leans forward and her voice takes on a new rhythm. "When we do a concert, and they leave the hall happy, or we've touched them, maybe shaken them up, moved something in them, for me that's the reward. For me the biggest reward is what we can do with music, the beautiful music. Sometimes I'm up there on the podium, and I think this is my group, and I'm so happy, and then you look in the audience and people are smiling. That is the big reward."

Orth and the symphony are determined to bring the transformative power of music to everyone who is willing to listen. Their outreach and education programs reach throughout the region. Their newest program, eXceptional Orchestra, is open to elementary-aged children, with and without disabilities. The program is five-weeks long and includes dancing, singing, creating artwork and making instruments. The symphony partners with arts organizations to bring this program to fruition. It culminated in a concert with music that was all connected with water.

"It's been the most touching musical experience. We bring together kids with all kinds of disabilities, without disabilities, with the orchestra, our choir, dancers, Suzuki players and a soloist from Knoxville. You don't need words, but I always say that music can make a difference in our lives, and it's true here," Orth says.

When Orth worked with the program in Oak Ridge, she says, "We had a girl with autism; during that project we realized that she loved to sing, and she'd never sung before. So now, whenever she's in a stressful situation, they can sing with her, and she can loosen up, and they can totally expand her horizons. So everybody is coming together through music without a lot of words. That's really where it all culminates, because that's the proof that we are touching people through music."

Other outreach programs include school programs, inviting school choirs to perform with the orchestra, collaborations with other arts organizations, a program at the YWCA for at-risk children, and family and school concerts.

"For us the whole organization is based on education and outreach. When you look at even our regular concerts, everything is built on what we need to get the orchestra's music out to communities," Orth says. "We don't just have masterworks concerts with symphonies, concertos and overtures; we also do different styles."

One of her examples is rewriting their recent production of "Die Fleidermaus" into an age-appropriate version and performing it at the Paramount Center for the Arts for middle and high school students. Their Christmas program involves students from around the region. "They bring their family and friends. So it's a two-level education: one for the people who get to perform, and two for the people they bring to the hall," Orth says.

"We're going to a perform a concert with the Krüger Brothers in February. It's bluegrass. Why are doing this? It's really, really cool music. It's the fiddle and the violin. Orchestra is not just for snobbish, rich, highly educated people. It's the same thing. We're just all after good music."

That music soars into the YWCA with a free music lesson every week provided by the symphony, and all students are admitted free to the symphony's concerts. There is a young artist competition, and the winner performs with the orchestra. There are master classes and two youth orchestras. More than 120 young musicians from across the region perform in the youth orchestras. The newest youth orchestra, Primo Orchestra, is strings only and began five years ago with four children – it has almost 50 musicians now. "There's a need there, and we are trying to cover some of the things that are getting cancelled in the schools," Orth says.

They also perform family and school concerts. "We design programs for children and take this out to rural areas. For example, we did a program called "Let's Dance.' We took the orchestra to Pound, Va., and Grundy, Va. We had an elementary school choir, a middle school choir, UVA-Wise students, a high school band, dancers, a soloist and a bluegrass group from the area. All of those children got to perform with us. The programs are shorter; it's more like a show with dancing and talking and costumes. We introduced the Can-Can from Offenbach. It's a line dance. How do you introduce a line dance to these children? We did the Macarena. All the kids and the orchestra were standing up doing the Macarena," she laughs. They provide teachers with guides to help them prepare their students, and they visit schools.

"As you can probably tell, I'm very proud of what we're doing. It's the collaborations and the education and outreach in addition to high, high quality masterworks concerts. I think that's what makes our motto – entertain, educate, enrich – those three words. I really think we are fulfilling those three words," she says.

All of these outreach activities, coupled with the concert season, is a daunting task, especially since they have to raise the funds to support them. In a day when musical organizations across the country are closing, the symphony is thriving. "When a lot of organizations closed their doors, we restructured the whole organization. We totally restructured the administrative part, we cut our budget, and we looked at every single dollar we spent. Since then, we have been very, very careful. We've been growing, but in a healthy way. We are working very hard to keep it that way. Plus, we're fortunate to have some very, very loyal donors. It's kind of amazing that this size of a community can maintain a fully professional orchestra of this size at this level," Orth says. The combination of loyal donors, patrons and hard work has positioned the symphony for a slow crescendo.

Orth only expands the symphony's performance schedule if she finds an underwriter. They recently expanded into a series of concerts in Blowing Rock, N.C., underwritten by that town's chamber of commerce. "The risk to just add concerts without having them fully underwritten is just not a really good idea. If after a few years, they can't fund it anymore, we're still safe because we just won't do that concert. So we have the core concerts that we always do, and if we grow, we do it in a healthy way."

The symphony plays in Kingsport, Tenn., Bristol, Tenn., Abingdon, Va., Blowing Rock, N.C., Wise, Va., Pound, Va., and Grundy, Va. They may add Lee County Va., next year, and Mountain City, Tenn., is on the list for next season.

"We cover a pretty big area and that's very important because we can bring the orchestra to places where people would otherwise have a very, very long drive and might never get to hear a symphony. They're not going to bus children three or three-and-a-half hours from schools in Grundy, but we have the possibility to take the orchestra there and give them an experience that they hopefully will remember," she says.

Their growth includes not just the symphony and its two youth orchestras. There are also the Voices of the Mountains choir and a new chamber ensemble.

The chamber ensemble is in its second season. It is composed of five or six of the symphony's best string players, depending on the music being played.

"They are amazing, and we can take them to places on a cheaper basis, because we are not talking 70 people, we're talking five people. Chamber music was written for somebody's home, it wasn't written for the stage, so we're taking it to Allandale. We're going to have dinner, a wine tasting and other things. And the chamber ensemble is playing in the setting that it was actually written for. I'm really proud of them," Orth says.

In addition to traveling throughout the region, the members of the symphony and the choir, the youth organizations, the board of directors and the women's symphony committee come from throughout the region. Musicians are local or come from Knoxville, Tenn., Asheville, N.C., and Boone, N.C. Many of them also play with the symphonies in Asheville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn. Orth tries to arrange the schedule so there are no conflicts with other orchestras, so that the musicians get enough work. She says that sometimes scheduling is a "nightmare."

You might think that planning an entire season for all these groups would be another nightmare, but Orth says it's one of her favorite and most complicated tasks.

"There are million things you want to do, and there's never enough money and enough concerts. So we have wish lists of things we want to do. We have certain things we always do, like the two holiday concerts; that's a given. We have the big Voices of the Mountains concert, they do a big work with us every year; so that's a given. Then we look at the last 10 years, I don't think you want to repeat something closer than 10 years."

She also looks at audience surveys and attendance numbers, and then she starts to devise scenarios and stay within the budget that the board gives her.

She takes those scenarios to her orchestra and operations managers. They put together spreadsheets of the cost. Sometimes, her ideas have to be dropped because of the expense. After she has several plans put together, the program committee meets. The committee is composed of board members, staff, musicians, the director of the chorus and the youth orchestra and audience members.

"We just throw things out and take some in, go back to the drawing board and a few months later, we have our season. It's a really interesting process, but there are so many different elements that come together. It makes it very fascinating, but also very tricky. You get dizzy just hearing it," Orth says.

"Our biggest challenge is finances. How can we get enough funding to keep this wonderful organization safe and going? We are very fortunate to have a great group of people. We're all here because we really believe in what we are doing. I don't think there's one single person in this organization who just does it for the paycheck. We all truly believe in what we do, and that's why we can do so many things. Only now that I talk about all of the things we do, do I realize how much we do with such a small staff. If we weren't totally dedicated and loved what we are doing, this would never happen. Everybody involved, every volunteer, musician, board member, every group is dedicated, and that's what makes it special.

"I think that a musical mosaic is what we're after. We have all of these groups, all the different styles of music, all the education, all the kids involved, all the audiences involved, all the locations involved. And all of this comes together in this beautiful musical mosaic – Symphony of the Mountains," Orth says.

THERE'S MORE

>> Symphony presents "A Down Home Christmas"

Topics: Music