Sunday, February 29, 2004

Suburban orchestra reaches out for audience



By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

"We've got the toughest of all worlds. We're trying to bring top-quality, professional music with paid players - for free," says Chuck Abbott, president of the board of the Blue Ash/Montgomery Symphony.

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Meet the new, improved Blue Ash/Montgomery Symphony Orchestra.

They don't charge admission. The players are paid professionals. And now they're getting bigger.

The orchestra, which started out in 1987 as a group that mainly played outdoor shows on the Blue Ash Towne Square, is expanding from three to seven concerts. Among the highlights next year: a "Festival of Freedom" program in September, honoring the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

"Historically, it has been a festival orchestra that assembled around holidays. We want to keep that in place, but also become a recognized ensemble," says Michael Chertock, music director. "We want to increase the size of our audiences and serve our community more broadly.

"It's a big jump - a leap of faith - to go from three to seven in these economic times. But we're confident that the community will reach out to us."

The orchestra began as the Blue Ash Symphony. Last year, the city of Montgomery joined as a principal sponsor. The orchestra now has a $70,000 annual budget, and gets $20,000 annually from each city. The remainder is raised through sponsorships.

The word is getting out. Labor Day and Memorial Day concerts have drawn more than 1,000 people, including many families with children - something on which organizers want to capitalize.

"There's a real interest in classical music," Abbott says. "What we can do is provide the music in a family setting. There are a lot of people who attend the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (downtown in Music Hall), but don't bring their children. And this is an opportunity for them to familiarize children with the music."

Chertock hopes his programming will attract baby boomers. .

"As people get older, the desire to experience something culturally different and more challenging is there," believes Chertock, a busy concert pianist who recently took up conducting.

His programming ideas include the standard European classics - Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky - but also gospel music, living American composers and diverse themes, he says.

"Montgomery and Blue Ash may be a stereotype of Caucasian and middle-class professional, but we want to make the program attractive to a wide variety of people," he says.

To ease the fear factor involved with classical music, he always explains the music from the podium.

Most of all, Chertock hopes to dispel the myth that the Blue Ash/Montgomery Symphony Orchestra is a community orchestra - the kind populated by unpaid amateurs. The musicians are professionals who populate orchestras such as the Cincinnati Ballet Orchestra and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. The size of the ensemble varies, depending on the program, from 30 to 55 players.

"I went into the first rehearsal expecting to take a talented community orchestra, and they read the music perfectly," says Chertock, who became music director in 2002. "The program was not nearly ambitious enough for them. They're stunning players."

So, is there room for another professional orchestra in the area?

"Is there room for another TV channel - not a bad one, but a good one?" Chertock says.

E-mail jgelfand@enquirer.com




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