Playing Onstage at Symphony Hall

Tom Wilkins, Family and Youth Concert Conductor at the BSO, leads the Onstage at Symphony program

Tom Wilkins, Onstage at Symphony

by Marilyn Kloss

What is it like for a bunch of amateur musicians to play on the stage of Symphony Hall in Boston?

Playing in an orchestra of colleagues under an inspiring conductor, feeling the resonant acoustics of the stage and hall, and being greeted by a large, wildly applauding audience added up to a memorable experience.

To be accepted for this program, you fill out an application and are selected by lottery. You’re notified of acceptance a few months later and receive the music shortly thereafter, with about two months to practice before the first rehearsal. Everything then happens in one week. Rehearsals are Monday evening, Tuesday evening, and Saturday morning, with the concert at 1:30 Saturday afternoon. The concert is free and open to the public.

The conductor, Thomas Wilkins, the BSO Germeshausen Youth and Family Concerts Conductor, once studied with the Concord Orchestra music director, Richard Pittman. Dick is proud of Tom’s accomplishments, and Tom says that Dick changed his life. Dick encouraged Concord Orchestra members to apply for the program, and nine regular members and one extra were accepted – Richard Cass, Loretta Tramontozzi, and Celia Shneider (violin), Sheryl LaFayette (viola), Ira Moskowitz (bass), Veronica Kenney (oboe & English horn), Kevin King (bassoon), Patricia Lake and Marilyn Kloss (horn), and Michael Rosen (trombone). Former members Priscilla Der Ananian (violin) and Marsha Turin (cello) also participated.

The horn section on the BSO stage (l-r): Adam Weber (Longwood Symphony), Hadley Reynolds (Bay Colony Brass), Marilyn Kloss (Concord Orchestra), Patricia Lake (Concord Orchestra), Shawn Foti (Lowell Philharmonic), Jessica Hiemenz (Norwood Symphony), Tonya Eggleston (Sharon Concert Band), Jeff Stewart (New England Philharmonic). Photo courtesy of Tonya Eggleston.

Meeting other amateur players, both in our own section and on other instruments, is a great part of the experience. (Ironically, Pat and I were assigned the same part, but we carpooled and so were able to chat as we seldom can at our busy rehearsals.) Veronica and her English horn stand partner doubled their beautiful solos. “Bobby Kipp, who plays in the Wellesley orchestra, and I had never played together before.” says Veronica. “We were astonished at how well our sounds and style blended.  It was a wonderful experience!”

Being inside Symphony Hall and meeting staff members made us feel like insiders. The stands had an extra shelf for pencils, glasses, etc. We had Plexiglas baffles protecting the horn players’ ears from the pounding of the percussion (inspiring Pat to consider investigating getting some for the Concord Orchestra).  Several BSO players (flute, bassoon, horn, a string player or two) joined us for a rehearsal, playing along and/or offering advice and encouragement.

The concert program was:

  • Meyerbeer    Le Prophète: Coronation March
  • Tchaikovsky    Eugene Onegin: Waltz
  • Puccini        Preludio Sinfonico
  • Borodin    Prince Igor: Polovtzian Dances

At the first rehearsal, we checked in and got name badges and T shirts, then found our places on stage, with our names on our stands – great organization all around! (Thanks to Emilio and his staff.) Tom Wilkins came on stage to enthusiastic applause and started by reading through the Meyerbeer march. Even with a less than perfect reading, we could feel the resonance of the stage and the hall, unlike the hall where we usually play.

Tom is an inspiring conductor. He ignored wrong notes and bad timing in favor of bringing out musical style – which counterintuitively had the effect of taking care of many of the little errors. He wanted to really hear the thump of the bass drum in the Borodin, something solid for the sharp chords in the rest of the orchestra to bounce off. The melody line in the Puccini stretched out smoothly to the breaking point. The chords in the Meyerbeer punched out with purpose; Tom’s demonstration got everyone in the spirit. Tom is also witty and had us laughing often. (“Does that bass drum belong to you? No? Then you don’t have worry, you can hit it harder!” “Violins, I can get some rosin for you if you need it to dig in and play louder!”)

At the final rehearsal, we ran down each work (in concert order) and worked on a few places. We were treated to an elegant buffet where we could socialize at small tables. As one o’clock approached, rumors went around about a line snaking around the block. We could hardly believe it! When the doors opened, people rushed to the seats, filling most of the main floor and especially the first balcony. I saw my friend at the front of the first balcony. Pat had at least 14 family and friends in the audience; she saw her parents (who had come in on the train) and husband also in the first balcony.

We were amazed at the size of the audience, but when the concert started, we were even more astounded at the applause. The atmosphere was electric, and we could see by the smiles on the orchestra members that they were affected by it. Tom spoke to the audience and led with the energy that we had seen in the rehearsals. The concert went by all too quickly, but everyone was euphoric with the result. The English horn players, the first clarinets, and the harp got special acknowledgement. Friendly goodbyes were heard as we put instruments in cases, gathered up coats, and filed out to find families and friends.

Were there any negatives? Yes. The level of playing varied widely, so pitch was not always accurate. All the wind and brass parts were doubled, even in soft passages, so delicate subtleties were sometimes trampled. The repertoire, although exciting, was not profound. Our principal horn wrote, “I admit that I was somewhat disappointed with the millions of afterbeats we had to play, but, in the end, that selection of pieces was great from just about every other point of view.  It was easily the largest audience I’ve ever played in front of, and their enthusiasm was very gratifying.”

Would we do it again? Would we recommend that other members of the orchestra apply to the program next time? Absolutely! One participant wrote that it was “an awesome, unforgettable experience.” I think everyone felt that way.

The lower brass section (l-r): Peter Norton, Sean Buchsbaum, Michael Rosen (Concord Orchestra), Andrew Pollock, Michael Manhart, Wing Sze Chan, and Ken Gardner. Photo courtesy of Michael Rosen.

Learn more about Onstage at Symphony.

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