At the far northwestern corner of Pennsylvania lies Erie, a city of just over 100,000 roughly equidistant from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Those not from the area may be surprised to learn that Erie is home to not one but two orchestras: the Erie Philharmonic and the Erie Chamber Orchestra. Though Erie’s economy is significantly smaller than during its years as a major iron-and-steel manufacturing hub, it fully supports both groups: the Philharmonic, founded in 1913 and still going strong, and the smaller Erie Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1978 by Bruce Morton Wright. The Erie Chamber Orchestra has a very specific mission: to present high-quality classical music to the community for free. Since its founding the orchestra has stuck with that mission, performing nine concerts each season, mostly in local churches and schools.
The Erie Chamber Orchestra’s fortunes took a sudden turn in the summer of 2011, when Wright died of leukemia at age 65. Wright was not only the group’s founder and manager but also served as music director: for all intents and purposes, he was the orchestra. For a brief time, it wasn’t certain whether the orchestra would continue at all. In the end, Susan Spafford, a violinist originally from Erie, was tapped as interim director and the decision was made to split Wright’s job into two: music director and general manager. Spafford oversaw the search for those positions, and Matthew Kraemer was selected as music director and Steven Weiser was hired as general director. Both are in the midst of their first season with the orchestra.
SymphonyNOW caught up with Weiser to chat about this transitional year for the Erie Chamber Orchestra. It is, in fact, Weiser’s first administrative job with an orchestra, and the learning curve has been steep but exciting, he says. Together with Kraemer, Weiser sees this season as an opportunity to take an orchestra that had settled into a comfortable groove and shake things up a bit. Weiser says both he and Kraemer had the same reaction after hearing the orchestra play: “We can’t approach this like a community orchestra, because it’s too good. It’s time that this orchestra really comes out of its shell.”
Jennifer Melick: How did you end up managing a chamber orchestra in Erie, Pennsylvania?
Steven Weiser: Before coming here I ran a teaching studio out of my house in Reading, Pennsylvania—I was trained as a classical percussionist—with about 55 students a week. During a typical week I taught every weeknight and all day Saturday and Sunday. I did that for seven or eight years right after I got my master of music from Temple University. During that time, I also played timpani in the Reading Symphony. My dad, Charles Weiser, was executive director of the Reading Symphony until his retirement in 2010. That was how I got the behind-the-scenes training and interest in management of an orchestra, because I sort of lived it. About a year ago, in January and February, I started sending out resumés.
Melick: Your logo says “Gannon University’s Erie Chamber Orchestra.”
Weiser: Gannon University provides us office space. My office is here in the College of the Humanities and the Arts. They give us space, and they pay my salary. We use their resources for things like printing marketing materials and programs. I design all the mailings, write all the letters, but they physically do the mailing for us. That relationship has been in place since the early ’80s.
Melick: All the Erie Chamber Orchestra’s concerts are free. How did that come about?
Weiser: The orchestra’s founding patron was Clarence Beyers. He donated a large endowment to the orchestra, given in perpetuity every year for $30,000. That is the main reason why we can give our concerts for free. The grant is conditional on the fact that we never charge money for tickets. In 35 years we have not once charged admission. It’s part of our mission.
Melick: Where do you perform?
Weiser: We perform at local churches within walking distance of the Gannon University campus, all within four blocks. The university does not have a performance space. One of the churches is Gannon’s chapel, but now that our audience size has exploded, we can’t use their space anymore: at 400 seats, it’s too small. People are hanging from the rafters. We’ve been drawing about 600 at each show so far, plus standing room. The concerts are low-key, because at these churches the audience is always so close to the orchestra. Our mission is that we want the music to be accessible to everybody, not just free. Certain people would be scared away from a big, imposing concert hall. But when you can just walk in off the street, sit down in jeans, and see a really good concert—those are the people that we’re really going after.
Photos below (top to bottom): A few of the venues where the Erie Chamber Orchestra performs are the Luther Memorial Church, Mary Seat of Wisdom Chapel, First United Methodist Church, and Church of the Covenant.
Melick: Do you share some of the same musicians who play with the Erie Philharmonic?
Weiser: Yes. The overlap is about 30 percent. We have about 35 musicians, on average. For a small-strings concert, it’s 20.
Melick: In January you gave your annual Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute concert, with guest violinist Adé Williams, a fifteen-year-old winner of the Sphinx Competition. There’s a short YouTube clip from Williams’s visit linked in at your website. Do you post those videos?
Weiser: Yes. We have videos of all five concerts so far this season—a little highlight reel. We link those in at our website. I share those videos on Facebook , too. We’ll probably crack 1,900 Facebook likes next week. We started with just 40 “likes.” I think our YouTube hits are up at least to the 200s. Our orchestra page at the Gannon University website has had over 2,000 views, and it’s been up only about two and a half months.
Melick: Who is your audience at concerts?
Weiser: It’s an interesting cross-section. A third of the audience are the people who would also go see the Erie Phil, some of our more wealthy donors, people who will go see classical music anywhere. Then you have the 30 percent who are younger people, often with kids. And then we get the disadvantaged population, people who literally come in off the street. We put signs outside that say, “Free concert, right here, right now.” Some of them come from retirement communities, and these are most likely the people who would not go all the way downtown to see concerts. We also get a good college presence from Gannon.
Melick: Do you have partnerships with social service agencies or other local organizations?
Weiser: We partner with Gannon University’s Erie-GAINS outreach program in the hardest-hit area within the center city, where about 70 percent of the kids receive free lunch. Our educational outreach is done at schools in that downtown area. I’m very close with the music teachers at those elementary schools. We get them posters for each concert, so their kids are always aware when there is a free concert in their backyard. Just before each concert, we usually bring our guests artists and our conductor to visit schools in the area. We also have good relationships with the retirement communities, which bus a lot of people into our concerts.
Melick: What sort of media coverage do you get?
Weiser: There’s a daily newspaper that runs a story the Thursday before each of our Friday concerts. When we donated a piano to a local elementary school in November, three TV networks were there, plus the newspaper. The local Fox affiliate covered the master class that Adé Williams gave the other day at a local middle school, when she was here for the Martin Luther King, Jr. concert.
Melick: What do you see as the orchestra’s biggest challenges?
Weiser: We have a lot of donors that give in the $100, $200, $500 range. But we have no corporate sponsorship at all. We have a couple of nice regular grants each year from local organizations and from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, and I have gotten about $15,000 in new grant money. But we’re still lacking in any kind of a concert sponsor. So for this spring, Matt and I want to increase our sponsorship, because then we can do more for the community.
Melick: You haven’t announced your 2013-14 season yet.
Weiser: No, but I can tell you about opening night: David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, will be here. The fact that we can present him to the community for free is incredible. It turns out David did a bit of his schooling in the Buffalo area when he was a kid, so for him it’s a little like coming home. We also commissioned Shannon Wood—a composer and timpanist for the Grand Rapids Symphony who’s a good friend of mine—to write a six-minute piece. It will have a nautical theme, tied to our location on Lake Erie. It will be pretty exciting to open our season this way—here’s an orchestra that a year before was likely ready to fold because the longtime conductor had died. A year later, we have a world premiere and David Kim on one concert!
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