Sounds of the symphony
Monday, October 28, 2013
Sounds of the symphony

It’s rare for an orchestral concert in New Brunswick to sell out, but in September that’s what happened, not once, but three times in a row.

Symphony New Brunswick’s special presentation featuring popular local bluesman Matt Andersen attracted all sorts of listeners to the performances in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John. It’s the kind of hybrid concert audiences can look forward to in 2014.

“I’ve been saying ever since the very beginning when I first came to New Brunswick: The orchestra exists for all kinds of listeners,” said Michael Newnham, the symphony’s conductor. “We do the core concerts, music by Tchaikovsky or Brahms or Beethoven, composers like that, but we also should be doing family concerts, hybrid concerts, like the one with Matt Andersen. That was such a successful concert week that we’d definitely like to try something like that again.

Newnham has parlayed the success of that series and other shows to win a new, three-year contract as the symphony’s maestro after first appearing as a guest conductor in 2005 and then getting the top job in 2010. The symphony’s board made the announcement last week.

“Michael’s developed an even better rapport with the orchestra, and they’re starting to work under his hands much better,” said Jennifer Grant, the symphony’s general manager. “It takes a while, particularly when the musicians come from all over the province and he’s only here five times a year or so. But he’s really had an impact.”

Newnham, who grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, playing bass in a rock band before switching to jazz trombone and then studying composing in Poland, is modest, saying that he’s been aided by a factor that has nothing to do with him.

Sistema New Brunswick, an endeavour of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra that began in 2009, provides free instruction six days a week to children who show enough commitment and dedication to the instrument of their choice. The organization operates four centres, in Moncton, Saint John, Richibucto and the Tobique First Nation, and teaches more than 600 children, thanks to corporate and government sponsorships.

The revolutionary program from Venezuela has attracted top professional musicians, reversing a small part of the New Brunswick brain drain.

“Musicians who come in to work full-time with these kids are highly qualified,” said Newnham, 54, who lives in Peterborough, Ont., and also conducts in the city 136 kilometres northeast of Toronto. “Nowadays, musicians are getting masters and doctoral degrees, whereas in my day it was just a BA. These people are highly trained and we’re very lucky because we benefit from their talents. They’re looking for a place to play and we’re always looking for people to play with us.”

It also helps the finances. In the past, the symphony would hire professionals from other places to help fill out the orchestra’s core group of 40 or so musicians. The latest concert featured 52 professionals, all from New Brunswick.

Gone are the debt days of the past, when the symphony ran a budget in the red. The fundraiser behind the Matt Andersen shows has also allowed the symphony to use better recital space.

“We came out well at the end of the fiscal year – we had a few thousand in the bank – so we were very happy about that,” Grant said. “But every year is a struggle. It all depends on corporate sponsorship, donations, government grants, and more than anything else, people coming to the concerts.”

Attendance has slipped in recent years, but Newnham is eager to explore other avenues to win over audiences. He said the Andersen concerts introduced some younger audiences to a live orchestra for the first time and older audience members to music they might have otherwise lost interest in.

Newnham also believes the orchestra is now good enough to consider doing a recording of some sort, a studio visit that has happened in many years.

“The potential seems to have grown a lot with the influx of musicians coming into the province. That gives greater possibilities for the orchestra to do more difficult pieces and to really develop as an entity.

Right now, it’s at the level where we can consider recording something, so it’s really developed by leaps and bounds, and it’s a great place to be.”