Classic choice

Newcomer to Waltham takes its orchestral music seriously

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephanie V. Siek
Globe Staff / May 18, 2008

For more than two decades, the Waltham Philharmonic Orchestra has provided classical musicians and fans in the city an outlet and a resource for live performances. Now, though, Waltham has what few cities its size are called upon to support: two classical orchestras. This month marked the debut performance of the Waltham Symphony Orchestra, founded by a French conductor who for a brief time led the Philharmonic.

Neither organization wants it said that these are dueling orchestras. They are more like complementary notes in the same chord, they say - separate, capable of different sounds and tones, but both adding to the richness of the area's musical offerings.

Each will have different performance venues, different repertoires, different musicians, and if it can be done, different audi ences drawn from Waltham's population of nearly 60,000, as well as surrounding communities. Waltham will be bucking a national trend by hosting two orchestras at a time when even some big-city groups are seeing drops in ticket sales and attendance. Newton is the only other nearby suburban community with two orchestras.

Patrick Botti, music director of the new Waltham Symphony Orchestra, which plays at the Kennedy Middle School, said his local roots are deep. He lived in the city for a while after coming to the United States in 1982 on a Fulbright scholarship. He spent three years as music director at the now-closed St. Joseph's church on Main Street, and eight years as musical director at Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted.

During a recent interview in a rear booth at Wilson's Diner on Main Street, he was surrounded by an orchestral arrangement of a different type: the clamor of clanging dishes, the scrape of a knife across a plate, voices that bounce around the vintage steel diner like pebbles in a tin can.

Botti, wincing occasionally at a particularly shrill assault on his sensitive ears, talked about how he ended up leaving the Philharmonic and starting another orchestra.

"I applied not really knowing much about the orchestra. I got the gig, and what I discovered was that - how can I put this?" he said, pausing a moment, considering his next words carefully. "It was composed of very beginning musicians, amateurs. In this it provides a valuable service."

But after a lifetime of conducting and training that included jobs with several prominent orchestras in France, as well as guest conductorships for the BBC, the Royal College of Music Orchestra in London, the Luxembourg Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Springs Symphony, it wasn't what he had hoped for.

Botti was appointed musical director of the Waltham Philharmonic in May 2007. He resigned by the end of the year. It was a mismatch, both parties agree. Botti said he envisioned a top-level orchestra with semiprofessional musicians and a firm rehearsal schedule. But the Philharmonic board was unwilling to sacrifice its tradition of including and developing amateur, hobbyist players. Both sides deny that it was a bitter split, and dismiss the idea of competition now.

"I said to them, if you want to be a real top-level orchestra, you have to make a lot of changes, in terms of musicians, in terms of rehearsal," said Botti. "There's nothing wrong with your type of orchestra, but I'm not the right person to lead it."

Karen Walz, the Philharmonic's publicity director, said Botti's vision would have meant losing the characteristics that make it unique and popular with Waltham residents, including its willingness to accept people whose passion might be higher than their skill level. Their youngest musician is 9; the oldest are in their 70s or older. Only a few have ever played professionally, and the majority have nonmusical careers and families. She said they've been happy with the appointment of conductor Peyman Farzinpour, who replaced Botti in January, because he's willing to bring each player to achieve their personal best as a performer.

"Our vision of a community orchestra is that it is not all professionals. We want to welcome people from the community and area," Walz said of the Philharmonic, which plays at the McDevitt Middle School. "Rather than hiring professionals and dismissing the longtime community members who have been very devoted and supportive of the Waltham Philharmonic, we want to keep those people. We want to value those people who have been with us so long."

Philharmonic board president and first violinist Stephanie Schaffhausen exemplifies that openness. She has been playing with the Philharmonic since its inception in 1985, when a local newspaper article about it inspired her to dust off the violin she hadn't played in two decades. Despite the long hiatus in her musical background, Schaffhausen said, she was welcomed with open arms.

"I nearly died," she said of the workout at her first rehearsal with the orchestra. "After I was done I couldn't hold my arm - it wouldn't go up, it wouldn't go down. It is not like riding a bicycle. So I went back to taking lessons. I still take lessons."

Schaffhausen said she is not sure that she ever would have played again if the Philharmonic hadn't given her the opportunity. She went on to recruit her husband, Brian, to play viola - even though he'd never played anything but the piano before. Her son, a cellist, and her daughter, also a violinist, played with the Philharmonic through their high school and college years as well.

"Playing music is about the best thing you can do with your life. There's so much fun and joy, and you can bring joy to other people," said Schaffhausen.

Botti's ambition is to lead an orchestra that is skilled and confident enough to experiment beyond traditional classical music. He wanted to attract musicians who were capable of playing at a professional level, even if they pursued other careers during the day. He wanted people who were able to devote more of their free time to practice and rehearsals than many of the Philharmonic's players, who juggle their regular jobs, families, and other hobbies. Waltham Symphony Orchestra includes professionals and semiprofessionals, as well as some high school and college students, who had to audition for positions with the ensemble.

The orchestra made its debut on May 10, with 60 musicians performing before a crowd of about 250, said Halley Suitt, its executive director. Works by Mozart, Brahms, Ravel, and several French composers were performed, she said, all chosen to fit the event's Mother's Day theme.

Mothers and grandmothers were admitted free, Suitt said, "but they all dragged these guys with them, and we sold a lot of tickets. It was great."

Botti said his orchestra's regular season will be "five concerts from October to July," although this year, it began its season early to make its debut before the summer.

He dreams of playing not only Bach, Brahms, and Debussy, Botti said, but also integrating traditional Indian musical instruments and Latin American compositions, taking advantage of the full spectrum of Waltham's diversity.

"The symphony orchestra as it is right now, if it is to survive in America, has to change. I'm not saying you have to do corny stuff, but you have to relate to the community," said Botti.

To that end, he started working with a marketing class at Bentley College that researched how to market the orchestra to potential musicians, sponsors, and its audience. The class of 24 students spent hours researching the area's demographics, reading preferences at local libraries, and posting themselves in front of supermarkets, banks, and the library to survey residents about their musical interests.

"What we found was that people wanted to see crossovers - with modern [music], with bands, with dance. They wanted to see something other than the classical concert. They wanted to see a certain twist," said Bentley marketing professor Nada Nasr.

Botti sums it up this way: "There are things we can do here that people are afraid to try."

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