by Lois Street — 

Members of SPHERE (Special People’s Housing, Education, Recreation and Employment) will play a special role in the first concert of the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra’s season, as they join the musicians to perform the world premiere of Sphere of Influence by Chris Brubeck. The Oct. 1 concert is the first of three with guest conductors, as the orchestra conducts a search for a new music director.

“Chris has written a piece specifically to incorporate SPHERE members with the full orchestra. The project was funded by a Getty Foundation grant to further the already existing relationship between the RSO and SPHERE,” said Laurie Kenagy, executive director of the orchestra.

Sphere of Influence includes vocals and small percussion by members of SPHERE, a Ridgefield organization working to bring enriching experiences and a strong sense of community into the lives of adults with developmental disabilities.

During his career, Mr. Brubeck, the son of the late jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck of Wilton, has created an impressive body of symphonic work. He also maintains a demanding touring and recording schedule with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. In the quartet, he plays jazz trombone with his brother Dan on drums.

Along with Sphere of Influence, the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra will play works by Brahms, Bruch and Dvorak in a program titled “A World of Possibilities,” under the baton of guest conductor Barbara Yahr, who is music director of the Greenwich Village Orchestra and has guest-conducted the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and many orchestras around the world. Ms. Yahr also has a master’s degree in music therapy from New York University. She coordinates with Kim Pereira, a local music teacher who is coaching the SPHERE performers in singing and dancing.

The performance will take place Saturday, Oct. 1, at 8 p.m. in the Anne Richardson Auditorium at Ridgefield High School, 700 North Salem Road (Route 116). The evening will open with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1,  continue with the Brubeck work, and then present violin soloist Yevgeny Kutik playing Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. As part of an effort by the New York Philharmonic to get orchestras in the greater New York area to play the work as a community-building effort, the program also includes Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”

During the 2016-17 concert year – “A Season of Change” – the RSO leadership will confront two of the most crucial changes that affect any orchestra: a reduction in the number of subscription concerts, and the choice of a new music director/conductor.

In the quest for a music director, “we have a search team in place, and we’ve had a wonderful response,” said Donna Case, co-chair with Peter Grierson of the symphony’s board of directors. “We’ve received many resumes from young and old, male and female. We hope to have a music director by next spring to help with programming for the 2017-18 season,” Ms. Case said.

In the spring of this year, when regular RSO subscribers received information about the upcoming season, they were surprised – and maybe not too pleased – to see that the regular schedule of five subscription concerts had been reduced to three. In addition to the Oct. 1 concert, the Ridgefield Symphony will perform “Celebrate!” under the baton of guest conduction Kevin Fitzgerald on Dec. 3, featuring Vivaldi’s “Winter” from The Four Seasons, arias from Messiah by Handel performed with soprano Monica Yunus, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. On May 13, guest conductor Michael Lankester will lead “Heroic Masterpieces”: Overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila by Glinka, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 with soloist Adrian Daurov, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

“Because we’re in this year of transition, our new leadership didn’t develop until late last spring,” Ms. Case said, referring to the departures earlier this year of music director Gerald Steichen and executive director Lawrence Kopp. Ms. Kenagy became executive director on April 1.

Besides filling the leadership positions, the board and staff are also dealing with a serious drop in funds. For several years, the Dancing with the Stars gala, in which local celebrities participated, raised tens of thousands of dollars annually. “After the loss of the gala, revenue fell off incredibly,” Ms. Case said.

Nevertheless, the symphony’s board and staff are fired up.

“My primary goal is to see an organization that has been a vital and unique part of the Ridgefield community for over 50 years move into the future with vitality and relevance,” Ms. Kenagy said.

It turns out that five Ridgefield Symphony concerts will be available this season after all. In addition to the three subscription performances, two fundraisers are planned in the form of benefit concerts.  

These concerts will be held in smaller venues with one goal being to attract younger audiences. A program has already been planned for April 15, 2017, at the Ridgefield Playhouse. The RSO will open the program, followed by Chris Brubeck and his trio.

“People are liking a more engaging atmosphere – a smaller audience and a more informal setting, such as in a home, where you’re sipping a glass of wine as you listen to music with friends,” Ms. Case said, adding that the goal is to “build the program back to the traditional five concerts.”

“We are excited about appointing a new music director for the 2017-18 season,” Ms. Kenagy said, “and to making live music as accessible to as broad a range of our community as possible.”