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September 28, 2007

Musical Refinement in Missoula

It keeps happening. A friend asked me where I was off to next, and I said "I'm going to visit the Missoula Symphony Orchestra in Montana." And I got that look - a look I've come to know as an attempt at a sympathetic, pitying gaze, followed by some comment like "my condolences." I have begun to be short with people, even though I know they mean well. I keep explaining that not only do I enjoy the travel and the actual visiting, but that I hear really good music in a wide range of performances and settings...

I've said in earlier blogs that I am no longer surprised that the small orchestras in this country play as well as they do - and so indeed I was not surprised by the level of technical execution. The Missoula Symphony was giving its first concert under its new music director, Darko Butorac, and clearly a love affair was happening on that stage between the musicians and their new conductor. The fact that intonation and ensemble were good, that attacks had a certain precision and crispness about them - this is something I have now come to expect. But what did lift the concert above that level, particularly the performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth, was the refinement of dynamics and color, and the overall rightness of the balances. If there is a performance aspect that distinguishes the really good and great orchestras, it may well be dynamic shading - the ability to have many levels of piano and pianissimo, many gradations between mp and p. That characteristic was evident in the very opening of the Tchaikovsky Fifth, and remained a constant throughout. The Missoula Symphony and its new music director are going to bring a great deal of musical excitement and satisfaction to Missoula.

One thing that I really loved about this orchestra was that its executive director, John Driscoll, was also its principal trumpet, and that some other members of the small staff were also musicians in the orchestra. This isn't the first time I've encountered an executive director of a small orchestra who also played in it - but it is still rare, and it makes me smile whenever I see it. At least here we are likely to have a climate of mutual understanding, in both directions. (And he appears to be very good at both jobs.)

This is yet another example of a basically healthy orchestra, one that has become an asset to this university town of about 50,000 (with a metropolitan area of about 150,000). Some 80 percent of the musicians teach in the community - thus the presence of the orchestra has added in a deep way to the resources of the community. Missoula is a very interesting and vital community. Someone told me that in a recent study, it turned out that Missoula had the largest number of not-for-profit corporations per capita of any city in the U.S. Clearly that puts a strain on the supply of philanthropic dollars in a community, and also on the supply of good board leadership. But on the other hand, it is the sign of a vital, enlivening, stimulating community as well.

Posted by hfogel at September 28, 2007 3:49 PM

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David Patrick Stearns has a nice article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, in the same spirit as Mr. Fogel's Missoula report, on the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra, here.

Posted by: Geo. at November 1, 2007 12:55 PM