WILMINGTON — The last time Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante was on stage with the 70-member collective was 14 months ago: Feb. 8, 2020. The maestro will return center stage on Friday night as part of a “Pops” concert, presented by a chamber orchestra of 30 WSO members, along with CFCC student and WSO Youth Orchestra violinist Danielle Swart.
“The best thing for me [being back] is sharing a space with 30 living, breathing (albeit through masks) musicians,” Errante wrote in an email to Port City Daily.
Errante has been with WSO for 35 years. The organization itself will celebrate 50 years in its upcoming season, which launches its first concert back in its home at Wilson Center this October. The season will include guest artists and collaborations.
“We will end our season with an original composition by Steven,” said WSO’s new executive director Liz Scanlon.
Though the pandemic brought all WSO concerts to a halt, Scanlon wanted to ensure the nonprofit’s outreach, communication among musicians, as well as with their donors, remained strong. It was a tall order, as Scanlon had been in Wilmington with WSO for only six months before Covid-19 locked everyone away in their homes for months on end.
“I had three concerts before we shut down,” Scanlon said.
Scanlon moved to Wilmington from Providence, Rhode Island, where she worked for the Rhode Island Philharmonic, New England Conservatory and the Boston Lyric Opera. When she arrived down south, she said she jumped on the fast-track to get to know all the main players in the WSO sphere.
“Lots of phone calls, lots of lunches,” Scanlon said. “And we’d always have receptions before the concerts, so I was really getting to know our donor base.”
Then the pandemic hit. Like the rest of the world, Scanlon had to pivot and make decisions on how to keep up the steam and momentum she had carefully gained during her first months on the job. Though WSO concerts stopped altogether, youth orchestra outreach remained top-of-mind, as did maintaining contact with WSO members.
“I came into the office daily to clearly communicate with our donors and our subscribers every week,” she explained, “whether it was an email, or our email blasts, or updating the website, or personal phone calls. It was really important that I be the face of the symphony through all of this.”
Though WSO was saving on expenses during the downtime, it also wasn’t gaining revenue. Paycheck Protection Program loans and other federal grants helped fill in gaps as needed.
“Our donors really understood that, even though we weren’t offering concerts, they still needed to support us to ensure we were able to come out on the other side,” Scanlon said.
As other agencies leaned into livestreams, Scanlon said the costs to put on a show with all of WSO members just wasn’t feasible. “Bigger organizations, like the Baltimore Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestra, have the money to be able to do all these great streaming concerts,” she said.
Instead, Scanlon decided to lean into the grassroots of the organization. She began doing interviews that introduced all members of the orchestra to its supporters.
“You can find out about their likes, dislikes, where they like to go to vacation, what their favorite book is,” she said.
She also focused on recordings of previous shows to fill gaps.
Most importantly, she ensured master classes for the youth orchestra would continue with WSO members via Zoom. They would learn “lessons on vibrato and Alexander Technique,” Scanlon explained.
Eventually, the youth began returning to in-person concerts at Cameron Art Museum last fall. The younger arm of WSO, consisting of around 70 students, did chamber programs from October to December, January to March, and March to May. Smaller groups would meet and host recitals at CAM during the program’s run.
“We just finished our last concert on May 9,” Scanlon said. “We did one a month, with up to seven groups performing 10 minutes worth of music. They chose a couple pieces they wanted to perform, but they probably had a repertoire of six songs.”
As well, WSO members would meet and practice as trios or quartets during Covid. “But as a large group, we did not get together,” Scanlon iterated. “But we did have socials on Zoom.”
Scanlon said WSO stabilized enough to enter its new fiscal year in pretty good shape. On Friday evening Errante will lead a truncated group of the orchestra through an hour or so of music.
“I was gratified to discover that the members of the Wilmington Symphony have been keeping their playing skills sharp through the pandemic,” he said, “because, once we started playing in our first rehearsal, it was like we had never stopped.”
The orchestra will tackle Mozart, Bach, Leonard Bernstein, English folk music, as well as popular songs, like Broadway’s “Mamma Mia” and Black Violin’s hip-hop “Brandenburg.” “[E]ven though we’re performing from printed music, there still is room for inspired moments of expression that might not have occurred in rehearsal,” Errante added.
Made up primarily of strings, harp and percussion, some brass and woodwind players will join at the beginning of the concert. Then they will exit — the orchestra had to take all precautions into consideration per Covid protocols.
“There’s a big question about spray with music, and emitting, if you have it, Covid,” Scanlon explained. “We’re all vaccinated, but because musicians should be wearing masks, we decided it’s best to mainly do strings and percussion.”
For violinist Danielle Swart, “American in Paris” will be a highlight of the show. “It’s such an iconic and lush composition that feels so magical with the orchestra,” the 18-year-old said.
Swart began playing violin at 11 years old after watching a teacher perform at a school concert. Thereafter, she studied with Dr. Danijela Žeželj-Gualdi before joining WSO’s youth program. “The variety of sounds and ways the violin can speak and be used in so many different settings” appeals most to the musician.
Currently, she studies with Phil Singleton, the chair of the fine arts department at Cape Fear Community College. Swart attends Wilmington Early College High School, which has a partnership with CFCC.
Quite a few members of WSO teach music at the college. CFCC adjunct brass instructor Adam Moxley-White joined the orchestra in 2019 after moving to Wilmington.
“I really enjoy getting to work with the rest of the trumpet section,” he said. “I remember my first concert with the WSO: We had a very exposed entrance at the beginning of the concert. It was great to work on those skills to play well under pressure.”
While the Friday night concert is free to attend, donations are accepted to benefit CFCC, specifically scholarships and programs, like the athletics department and the Wilson Center. WSO will perform outdoors on the north campus in the parking lot. The grounds fit 100 cars, and concert-goers will be able to watch the show from inside their vehicles — or they can bring blankets, chairs, and picnics to enjoy outside in front of their automobiles.
“Cape Fear Community College is having their graduation that day,” Scanlon explained, “so they had this beautiful stage and tent set up, with jumbotrons, and mics, lights and speakers. It’s perfect for an outdoor concert.”
To attend, concert-goers must RSVP here. The show gets underway at 7:30 p.m. at CFCC’s North Campus, 4500 Blue Clay Rd. in Castle Hayne.
Tickets for the 2021-22 season of WSO will launch in June.
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