Orchestra Kentucky’s recent rehearsal for its show “Cirque de la Symphonie” was a flurry of sounds as musicians warmed up.
The notes seemed just as acrobatic as the actual acrobats who would do choreographed gymnastics to the circus-themed music. Then, suddenly, there was silence as music director and conductor Jeff Reed stepped on the podium and tuning began.
As the orchestra began playing the music, Reed would make the musicians pause at certain points to give instructions and pace, punctuating them with a “dat-dat-dee-dot” or “digga-digga-dot.” He would make them play until it sounded right to him. He wanted the music to be good for the audience, especially since this was the first rehearsal and the concert was the next night.
On a song they were playing that normally had repeats, he said that there should be none.
“No repeats. I know you’re disappointed,” he joked as orchestra members laughed.
While Orchestra Kentucky typically doesn’t have its first rehearsal for a concert until the night before some performances, The Symphony at Western Kentucky University practices for five weeks prior.
“We rehearse three times a week. We’re trying to go in depth with the music,” said Brian St. John, Baker Professor of Music and director of orchestras at WKU. “A lot of them are going to be teachers themselves and want to know as much about the music as possible and teach it to others.”
The Symphony is mostly students and not professionals, St. John said.
“Every once in a while we have to have a professional come in and play an auxiliary instrument like the harp,” he said.
Both music groups draw audiences to their performances. They have worked hard over the years to get their music to people.
The orchestra was the vision of musicians Reed and Mike Thurman, who saw a need in the community for an orchestra of professionals. Established in 2000, the orchestra’s first year’s budget was $50,000. Now the budget is more than $900,000, Reed said.
“The first year we got down to the last concert of the season. We didn’t know how we were going to pay for it,” he said. “Everybody said they would go out and raise $500. That’s how we finished.”
Bowling Green has changed a lot since the orchestra started, Reed said.
“Our community has a lot more offerings,” he said. “Our goal is not to duplicate what is being offered.”
Preparing for a concert is not as easy as it sounds.
“We have to rent (the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center). We have to market the shows. We have to hire the orchestra. We have to move equipment,” Reed said.
“We have to get sponsors. We have to raise money through individual donations throughout the year. Someone has to pick up the artist at the airport and keep them fed.
“With 40 concerts, that’s a lot of preparation. We produce twice the number of concerts that other orchestras our size produce,” he said. “What I do is a lot of score study.”
The orchestra is already working on the 2017-18 season.
“You have to work ahead to see the artists’ availability and negotiate contracts,” he said. “We’’ll start selling subscriptions in late January or early February.”
The orchestra does everything with the help of a three-member staff – two part-time and one full-time.
“We’re much smaller,” Reed said. “We get a lot done with fewer people.”
There is also an Orchestra Kentucky Foundation which has a purpose of raising an endowment and an 18-member volunteer board of directors.
“They’re very generous people,” Reed said. “Many are concert sponsors.”
A committee is currently in search of a full-time executive director. Darrell G. Edwards, who had been serving part time, resigned in early August after 12 1/2 years in the position.
“As we get a new executive director we’ll let them paint their picture of where we go going forward,” Reed said.
Orchestra Kentucky not only has anywhere from 60 to 85 members who perform at concerts, it also has a band called The Rewinders that sometimes performs in and outside of Bowling Green with Reed. It is made up of local rock musicians.
“I have 25 concerts outside Bowling Green,” he said. “Some are with The Rewinders. We perform with orchestras in these cities.”
Reed also does concerts with well-known singers.
“Some are with Neil Sedaka. Some are with Mary Wilson of the Supremes,” he said. “We commission popular artists to write for the orchestra. Peter Tork of the Monkees is an example. It’s a way for them to get back to their roots because many of them were trained classically.”
Orchestra Kentucky has been commissioning artists once annually for five years, Reed said.
“Usually we combine that with the Lifetime Achievement Award. This year’s recipient will be Jimmy Webb,” he said. “He wrote songs such as ‘Up, Up and Away’ and ‘MacArthur Park.’ “
Reed’s travels take him all across the country. He was recently named principal guest director of Symphony Orchestra Augusta for the 2016-17 season. He is excited about the opportunity.
“This is a real honor for me,” he said.
Some of the musicians travel from as far away as Louisville, Nashville, Birmingham, Ala., and Charleston, S.C., to perform with Orchestra Kentucky as well, Reed said.
“That says a lot for the orchestra. I surround myself with talented people. They make me look good,” he said. “I’m very proud of the musicians. They have a good attitude.”
Jennay Keelin, orchestra director of marketing and patron services, plays violin. She played at the first concert in 2000 when Orchestra Kentucky was a volunteer group. She played off and on in the beginning.
“I have a history with the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra and the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra and we didn’t have a professional orchestra here in Bowling Green. I was approached to participate in a chamber orchestra that was forming here,” she said. “I was thrilled. Bowling Green Chamber Orchestra became Orchestra Kentucky. Orchestra playing is my first love. I was going to find that opportunity wherever it existed. Fortunately we had it right here in Bowling Green. For the last eight years I’ve committed to Orchestra Kentucky completely.”
Reed is a great conductor to work with, Keelin said.
“Jeff makes it fun, relaxed and enjoyable,” she said. “I think that’s why people keep coming back. Bowling Green has a lot of talent.”
The orchestra has evolved so much, Keelin said.
“You see change and growth,” she said. “It’s an exciting time.”
The Symphony isn’t a new kid on the block. It was founded in 1911.
“The first photo of the first faculty includes their orchestra conductor in it. Franz Strahm was born in 1867 and was appointed dean of music in 1910,” St. John said. “The next year they started the first version of the orchestra. They went through a phase of development over time. Different faculty would tailor it to their tastes.”
There are usually about 50 students, St. John said.
“We have strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion,” he said.
St. John has been at WKU for two years. Before him, the Baker Professor of Music was Bill Scott, who started a southcentral Kentucky schools strings program that has more than 800 students, St. John said.
“He helped foster string music education in the public schools,” he said.
The Symphony does five concerts a year and an opera series. The next concert, “Music From the Heavens,” will be at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at WKU’s Van Meter Hall. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for WKU students with a valid ID.
“The music is celestial in nature,” St. John said. “It’s about the stars and the skies.”
Landon Case, a senior music education major from Owensboro plays viola with The Symphony.
“This is my fourth year with The Symphony, I’ve been part of it through a lot of changes,” he said. “They’ve all been good. They play lots of fun music, lots of challenging music. I’ve had a great time.”
The number of people who have wanted to join, particularly the string instruments, has risen, Case said. The Symphony is also playing music the musicians and audiences aren’t used to hearing.
“It’s good for us to experience new things,” he said. “We used to play music that most people would know about, but we’re moving in a direction that people may not know it but can enjoy it because of how we play it. I think it is a good direction.”
When he was in high school, Case loved the sounds of the violin, but before that he listened to a lot of bluegrass.
“I wanted to play fiddle music,” he said. “We didn’t play a lot of bluegrass in the school system. They said, ‘Why don’t you play classical music?’”
Case plans to teach orchestra, choir or band when he graduates. He had some “cool opportunities” in high school and decided to come to WKU because he was attracted to it. He has been asked to help with the Bowling Green Youth Orchestra.
“I have played an instrument for 10 years. I’ve been in several different orchestras in Kentucky,” he said. “(The WKU Department of Music faculty) know a lot about music and make it meaningful to audiences. People can feel happy or sad from hearing music.”
Case loves to hear people come out and enjoy the concerts.
“It’s a good date with your significant other if nothing else,” he said.
– Follow features reporter Alyssa Harvey on Twitter @bgdnfeatures or visit bgdailynews.com.