“I wish they could earn what people are paid in Boston,” laments Symphony by the Sea co-founder Beverly Clark regarding her musicians, “but that’s just not the nature of the beast.”
Thirty-five years after helping to create Symphony by the Sea, a professional orchestra that performs in Beverly and Newburyport, Clark finds herself and her organization fighting the tides of history. “Every year we’re sort of amazed that we’re still alive because we’ve seen so many orchestras come and go over this time.”
Spring is a busy time at Symphony by the Sea, a two-month period that sees the season open with concerts in early April then wrap up in May with a fundraiser (on May 14) and, a week later, with the end of season “All Beethoven” concerts. This year, the fundraiser has a headliner sure to bring in a crowd, Peter Sagal, the host of “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” NPR’s popular game show. “We have 800 seats to fill,” explains an excited Clark, “and we’re well on our way to getting it sold out thanks to the appeal of Peter Sagal.”
Sagal will present an original theatrical comedy piece called “A Personal Journey Through And To The Constitution,” which is an extrapolation of a documentary he made for PBS, where Sagal rode around the country on a motorcycle getting a feeling for the way the constitution plays out in real life. He will also narrate a musical piece as it is being performed by the orchestra.
There is something wonderful about listening to a Boston-style symphonic performance, then walking out of the theater to find yourself in a North Shore downtown. But don’t let the location, or the pay-scale, fool you – these players know what they’re doing. “We’re on a level that could hold itself alongside any Boston orchestra,” said Clark. “When we first started everybody was more or less trained, but not at as high a caliber as they are now.”
Clark, trained as a professional flutist, is particularly excited by the quality of the music. “Most of the musicians are graduates of conservatories of one kind or another and have played with symphony orchestras and major chamber orchestras,” explains Clark, “and our conductor, Brian DePalma, is one of the founding members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.” The Orpheus is an innovative orchestra located in Manhattan that puts the interpretive power into the hands of the musicians rather than a conductor.
Ironically, one of Symphony by the Sea’s deficiencies turns out to be one of its benefits – at least from Clark’s viewpoint. Given the suburban locations and budget, the orchestra is smaller than what you’d find in the city. “We don’t use percussion other than a timpanist, we don’t use lower brass like trombones or tubas or bassoons. The orchestra is constituted as the same orchestra for which Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart actually wrote,” explains Clark.
Which also has the benefit of creating a more intimate experience. “It’s a different sound than you get when you go to a symphony orchestra which usually has 80 musicians,” said Clark. “We’re an orchestra of 35.”
This intimacy makes the experience special for the players as well as the audience, said Clark. “As someone who has played in symphony orchestras, I can tell you that it’s very, very different.” This is because, she explains, it becomes easier for the players to follow subtleties in one another’s performances. “When you’re playing, you listen to how another musician plays a phrase and you’re going to try and play it the same way. When there are 80 musicians on the stage, it’s not quite that intense.”
The Symphony has drifted around the North Shore, spending 15 of its early years at the Peabody Essex Museum, “then the Peabody Museum,” notes Clark; it was also in a Peabody church for a few years, spending the last dozen or so in Marblehead. But the move to Beverly put the organization right where it belongs according to board member Marcia Duffy. “We love being at the Cabot Theater. It’s a good, central location for the North Shore, which is important given our interest in widening our audience base,” and “the new seats in the renovated theater are attracting a bigger crowd.”
The orchestra hopes to attract new, younger, fans to classical music. The Cabot Theater is available during the day and is interested in joining Symphony by the Sea in developing programs for young people. “School groups could bring busloads of students in and hear daytime performances with an educational component included,” said Clark.
Not only will the students learn the joys of live music but, adds Duffy, “they just might bring their parents back with them.”
“ALL BEETHOVEN” concerts
Saturday, May 21, 2016, Firehouse Center, Newburyport, 1 p.m.
Sunday, May 22, 2016, The Cabot Theater, Beverly, 3 p.m.
An Evening with Peter Sagal, LIVE at the Cabot
To Benefit Symphony by the Sea on its Thirty-fifth Anniversary Season,
Peter Sagal, renowned radio personality and host of National Public Radio game show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, is an American playwright, screenwriter, actor, and commentator extraordinaire. The evening will include Peter serving as the jaunty narrator of the quirky (and short) Carnival of the Animals by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns, performed by members of Symphony by the Sea on Saturday, May 14, 2016 at 8 p.m. at the Cabot in downtown Beverly.