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Brockton orchestra enjoys crescendo of success

While many cultural organizations -- from the mighty Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston to local theater companies and museums -- are strapped for cash, the Brockton Symphony Orchestra has seemingly bucked the trend. Celebrating its 56th season, the orchestra saw a slight dip this year in season ticket subscriptions, but single-show ticket sales are on the rise. Creative grant-writing has helped bring in more private sponsorships, beefing up "a good chunk" of the orchestra's $160,000 annual budget, according to the chairman of its board of directors, Ted Hague.

More importantly, say its members and fans, the orchestra has evolved musically from a "token community orchestra" to a higher quality professional organization that draws internationally known soloists and concerto competition participants from throughout New England.

"The last couple of years we've played at least one concert in Boston, and it's been really great because it showed people who weren't necessarily from Brockton that there is stuff like this going on in Brockton," said Stefan Sherwood, a professional bassoonist who has played in the orchestra for five years. "Recently, there's a lot more hype and word-of-mouth about us. People in Brockton are proud of their orchestra."

That wasn't always the case, according to orchestra officials.

Jonathan Cohler, the orchestra's music director and conductor, said he decided when taking over eight years ago to focus on international talent rather than just local talent. The orchestra still showcases "its star members and local kids," but also brings in award winners from such prestigious events as the International Tchaikovsky Competition and the Cleveland International Piano Competition.

At the same time, Cohler, a professional clarinetist who teaches at New England Conservatory and the Longy School of Music in Boston, said he has raised the bar in the difficulty and quality of the music played by the orchestra. He also has instituted a "Composer in Residence" program encouraging the creation of new works written expressly for the orchestra, and often with the city of Brockton in mind.

In the spring, the orchestra will premiere a piece by composer in residence Thomas Oboe Lee called "Sounds of The Islands," which Cohler said "encompasses the musical sounds" of the homelands represented in Greater Brockton's large Latin community.

"A lot of orchestras pander by playing nonorchestral, nonclassical music to bring people in, but we believe that if you play, for example, big band music with an orchestra, you're not really hooking people into classical music," Cohler said. "Rather than hokey arrangements, we do real classical music, but build around it to make it more accessible."

For example, the orchestra's annual "Classics for Kids" concert scheduled for April will center around the theme of sports. Orchestral film themes, such as music from "Chariots of Fire," will be accompanied by actors and screen clips, Cohler said. Past children's concerts have featured giant puppet displays.

Emilian Badea, who has played bassoon in the orchestra since 1989, said Cohler has introduced a "demanding, almost courageous" repertoire, such as Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and all-Beethoven concerts. He said he believes the orchestra's audience continues to grow because residents appreciate being able to hear "Boston-quality music at less than half the price without the half-hour drive." Like about a third of the orchestra's members, Badea, who lives in Natick, is an volunteer. The other two-thirds of the orchestra is made up of paid professionals and music students. The only other community orchestra in Greater Boston with a higher percentage of professional players is the Boston Philharmonic, Cohler said.

Despite other regional orchestras such as those in Plymouth and New Bedford, Cohler said he does not sense any competition between the organizations.

"We've got a huge, loyal audience because we've been around so long," he said. "In our price range and for where we're located, there's really nothing else. If you want to hear a great Pops concert, you don't have to drive 45 minutes and spent $50; you can drive 15 minutes and pay $20."

Despite its popularity, the orchestra continues to work to increase its audience, both through community outreach efforts and its after-school programs for students, said Hague, chairman of the orchestra's board of directors. Orchestra officials said they would like to develop a city string program for youths, and also hope to acquire their own rehearsal and performance space.

"It's been great working in Brockton; the orchestra has really, really blossomed," said Cohler. "But we're even more excited about the future potential. Down the road, I see it being a $1 million regional orchestra."

Joanna Massey can be reached at massey@globe.com.

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