SMSO—Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra—is definitely not your grandmother’s pearls and formal night at the performing hall. Indeed, it might not even be at night or inside, and the dress code no longer requires a lorgnette.
“It’s all about making a difference in the community,” says Robin Fountain, SMSO’s conductor, with his Downton Abbey British accent. “Last year it was 'Shrek the Musical' held at Shadowland Pavilion and for the upcoming 'Young by Design' we commissioned Larry Schanker to write a piece for a collaboration with the Benton Harbor High School Drumline and The Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor Drumline.
"What we’re doing is making transformational experiences, which is what art is all about. I think it’s transforming many lives in our area.”
Fountain, who was born in the UK and educated at Oxford University, The Royal College of Music in London, and Carnegie-Mellon, started conducting for the symphony orchestra six years ago. The Maestro is also on the faculty at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music since 1994, winning the 2007 Blair School’s Faculty Excellence Award as well as the university-wide Sarrat Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.
“Robin is the creative genius,” says Sue Kellogg, executive director of SMSO. “He and I work together bouncing ideas off of each other and then he goes with it. It’s all in keeping with our new mission—'Transforming Lives Through Music.' ”
A case in point, says Kellogg, is SMSO's upcoming Dueling Pianos with two pianists onstage playing music requested by members of the audience. Besides the entertainment, participants may opt for the dinner buffet or pay cash for a drink at the bar.
Brainstorming and ideas about the orchestra's programs come from anywhere and everywhere.
“Charlie Stempien, who owns the Liquor Locker and Rooster’s in St. Joseph with his wife Barbara, works with us when we do events,” says Kellogg. “He came in one day and said ‘I want to do microbrews,' and so now for this year’s Summer Solstice concert we’re doing 'Music and Microbrews' featuring artisan beer from local microbreweries.”
Among other intriguing concepts is this year’s “Dancing with the Symphony Stars,” SMSO’s biggest fundraiser, which will pair local celebrities with the Citadel Dance and Music Center in Benton Harbor and staged at the brand new Inn at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor.
By taking music to the community through different venues and musical genres, the SMSO is repositioning itself as a contemporary orchestra poised to appeal.
“Local celebrities like Rick Dyer, president of Edgewater Bank and our board president Norma Tirado, will be taking dance lessons ahead of time,” says Kellogg.
“It’s a different world,” says Barbara Globensky, who has been a member of the SMSO board for the last two decades as well as its past president and is now vice president in charge of audience development. “When I first came on the symphony board our performances at first were at the St. Joseph High School and then at the Mendel Center at Lake Michigan High School. But many people don’t want to just sit and listen to music for two hours, they want the music but to be able to do other things too.”
According to Globensky, this is SMSO’s way of welcoming those who haven't been coming to their more traditional concerts which this year includes guest artist Alexander Schimpf, an award-winning pianist performing the centerpiece of Beloved Classics.
“Robin does pre-concert talks and tells us what to listen for,” she says about the program offered before concerts where the conductor provides insight into the life and times of the composers, the context of the music as well as hints of what to listen for during the concert.
Orchestras are all about their community, Kellogg explains, and each community is different.
“We looked at our community because we wanted to align ourselves with what’s important here and decided to start a program at the Boys and Girls Club and focus on education,” she says. “We asked people to donate instruments for the kids and people were very responsive.”
SMSO offers a myriad of other educational programs with the goal of inspiring young minds. These include the Young People’s Concert which brings more than 3000 southwestern Michigan elementary and middle school students to see musicians from the SMSO perform in a concert setting. Another recent program is called "Side-by-Side Concert" because it provides student musicians the opportunity to play alongside symphony musicians. There is also "Musicians-in-Schools," a collaboration with Berrien RESA to bring SMSO musicians into classrooms to create a hands-on musical experience.
The model for the musician immersion is El Sistema, which originated in Venezuela and has become a visionary global movement. By establishing music programs in the slums of Venezuela, El Sistema showed how musical education can make a difference in the lives of children from even the most poverty-stricken areas. Its success as a model for social change has inspired organizations and imitations in the US.
El Sistema started a youth orchestra in the very poorest neighborhoods as a way of helping the communities as a whole, Fountain explains. As he knows fromn experience, “Music is more than just playing an instrument, it also teaches children to work together and develops discipline.”
Globensky notes that research indicates school work improves with the discipline of playing an instrument and that students lives are enhanced with music in the curriculum.
Despite all these modern outreach efforts, SMSO never forgets the classics.“We love our classical music too, Globensky says and adds that there is always the idea through SMSO innovation, "young people will find their way to classical music as well.”