Tuned up: The music and magic of community orchestras

Even if you don’t think classical music is your thing, the Cleveland Orchestra’s worldwide reputation for top talent and quality performances is a source of Cleveland pride. The Cleveland Orchestra performs year round—at Blossom Music Center in the summer and at their winter home at Severance Hall, perhaps one of the most beautiful concert halls in the country.

Heights Chamber OrchestraOften, it’s a common perception (but false) that attending a concert at Severance Hall is only for the elite—that it’s expensive and that you need to dress fancy and know about all the classical composers and their masterworks to enjoy it.

Some people prefer the Blossom Music Center outdoor shows because the concerts are a little more relaxed and the music can veer a bit from classical music to movie soundtracks, classic rock, or Broadway musical-themed concerts.

There is another way to find out what it’s like to attend a traditional orchestra performance without all the fanfare, and in a more casual atmosphere. There are dozens of community orchestras in Northeast Ohio that perform concerts with affordable, and sometimes free, admission.

This is the time of year when community orchestras start their seasons and host their holiday concerts—often the most popular events of the year. Sometimes, these community orchestras even get the chance to play at Severance Hall for special events or anniversary concerts.

Suburban Symphony Orchestra performance at Maltz Performing Arts Center

Sue Schieman, violinist in the Heights Chamber Orchestra, points out that many people in the audience often are friends and family of members of the orchestra (but the general public is always welcome).

“A real connection develops between those in the audience and those playing on stage,” explains Scheinman. “in some ways you are playing not just for yourself, but for that person you know who came to watch and listen because of you.”

In turn, community orchestra members enjoy getting audience feedback at the end of the performances. “The audience response is always rapt attention and enthusiastic applause for the orchestra at every concert,” says Randolph Laycock, conductor of Parma Symphony Orchestra. “I love meeting youngsters after the concert and asking them what they liked the best. It always makes me smile.”

Schieman adds “And you know it was worth taking the time to practice alone at home when someone you don't know walks up to you after a concert to tell you how much they enjoyed the program or to ask you a question about the music or your instrument.”

Music is a mission for these folks. Community orchestras operate as nonprofit organizations and are a labor of love for the musicians, who usually are not paid for their time or talents. While some community orchestra members move on to professional careers, others enjoy performing as a hobby and play in the same orchestra for many years.

Symphony West OrchestraLeading the way
The music directors, conductors, and concertmasters often do get paid for their leadership, and funds must be raised for expenses like rehearsal and performance space rentals, promotions, procuring music, and recording the performances—all of which are supported by donors.

Matthew Salvaggio is the conductor and music director for the Euclid Symphony Orchestra, with a background as an artistic leader for several other music organizations. Marking his fifth year with the Euclid orchestra, Salvaggio advises the board of trustees on the business side, helping them to be more effective in their fundraising, promotions, and grant writing.

“The board members drive, and the music director steers and provides the fuel.” Says Salvaggio. He uses a variety of tactics to encourage his musicians to continuously improve while meeting them at their competency levels.

“If necessary, I will sometimes modify a part [of the music] so that a less-experienced player can keep up and improve their skills,” he says.

Additionally, Salvaggio says he has extended the orchestra’s season with one additional performance—creating a shorter break between seasons so the musicians don’t lose momentum between seasons.

Randolph Laycock, conductor of the Parma Symphony Orchestra since 1978, has had a decades-long career as a music educator. He teaches string and wind music for the Schools, is a former director of youth orchestras at Baldwin-Wallace University, and past adjunct professor of music history and theory at Cuyahoga Community College.

Also an accomplished musician, Laycock has been a double bassist in the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, Cleveland Opera, and Cleveland Ballet Orchestra. As conductor, he selects music that is appropriate for the collective ability of the Parma Symphony Orchestra.

With the holiday concert season underway and the Parma Symphony’s Holiday Concert scheduled for this Sunday, Dec. 5, Laycock is simultaneously looking toward the spring season.

“We’re planning on some great musical interactions with some fantastic soloists this spring and in the future,” he says. “Also, we’re upgrading our recording capabilities this year.”

Jacob Campbell is first-year conductor at Symphony West Orchestra in Berea. Born in Lorain, Campbell moved back to Northeast Ohio from Florida for graduate studies at Cleveland State University. In his first professional conducting position, Campbell conducted the CSU Orchestra and Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra as a graduate assistant.

Campbell is now actively recruiting new members to join Symphony West Orchestra and he says he is looking forward to leading and educating the ensemble while also keeping the experience fun.

The players 

For the musicians who play in these orchestras the experience is not only a chance to improve their skills—it’s a chance to meet like-minded people and socialize.

“I have had an amazing opportunity to be able to perform many great masterworks—all nine Beethoven symphonies, all four Brahms symphonies to begin the list,” says Bonnie Svetlik, flute player and current president of Suburban Symphony Orchestra. “It’s been a lifelong learning opportunity. I also really appreciate the social interactions and friends I have made.”

Saam Cabot is a professional jazz and blues singer and musician who also plays clarinet in the Euclid Symphony Orchestra. A few years after driving her son Xavier, who plays trombone, to rehearsals, Cabot decided she might as well join the orchestra too.

Symphony West OrchestraCabot says she enjoys playing in the orchestra, even though it’s not a paying gig. “Playing in my jazz trio is a completely different kind of experience,” she says. “In an orchestra, you are within the music, you are part of one organism, and every player is integral to the performance.” 

Tracy Polgar, violinist in Symphony West Orchestra, joined in 2013. She began taking violin lessons as an adult—from her kids’ music teacher. “Joining the orchestra has helped me to learn and grow as a musician.” says Polgar, who also handles outreach and promotions for the group.

Student opportunities
Jacob Campbell, conductor at Symphony West Orchestra says he believes that community orchestra performances demonstrate the benefits of music education.

“It reinforces the importance of learning about music as a part of the overall education experience,” he explains. Some community orchestras have student competitions, which give students an opportunity to audition and perhaps play with the orchestras.

For instance, the Euclid Symphony Orchestra’s Tom Baker Young Artists Competition was established in 2019 for advanced music students ages 18 and younger. The winner earns a performance opportunity with the orchestra as well as receive a cash prize.

And the Suburban Symphony Orchestra’s Young Soloists Concerto Competition gives students the opportunity to perform a concerto with the orchestra. Several of the winners of this competition have gone on to professional music careers.

Overcoming the challenges

With concerts put on hold in 2020 due to COVID-19, community orchestras have now cautiously returned to live performances. The commitment to in-person music has involved extra precautions, but the musicians are anxious to do whatever it takes to get back together to rehearse and perform.

Heights Chamber Orchestra made the difficult decision in November to cancel its first concert of its 39th season, due to concerns about the pandemic, but Schieman says the delayed season will resume with its next scheduled performance in February.

The pandemic has also delayed Heights Chamber Orchestra’s search for a new music director. The group has been performing with a series of guest conductors since the retirement of principal conductor and music director Anthony Addison in 2017 after a 10-year tenure. Successor Mark McCoy took over as music director for two years before he died suddenly—leading the orchestra into its current search.

“We expect to announce a permanent music director by the end of the year,” says

Euclid Symphony OrchestraPerformance space can be expensive, and options can be limited by budget for these organizations. Some of the community orchestras operate in partnership with local school systems and are able to use high school performance spaces for their concerts. For instance, the City of Euclid provides Shore Cultural Centre, a former school turned community arts center, for the Euclid Symphony Orchestra shows.

Symphony West is currently looking for its forever home. The organization started in 1963 as the North Olmsted Community Orchestra and has bounced around in its 58 years—from a private home to performance spaces in North Olmsted schools, to Baldwin Wallace in the 2000s. Now the orchestra rents space at St. Adalbert’s Keller Center Hall for this 2021-2022 season. Orchestra leadership says they want to find a permanent home soon.

Symphony West flautist Ruth Lange is grateful to the musicians who also serve as board members, volunteers, and fundraisers. “We have worked very hard to maintain our budget with donations and fundraisers,” she says. “I am pleased to see how many new members have joined our orchestra and the generosity of [our donor] group to keep us going.”

Adapting and growing
Working with volunteers on shoestring budgets, these community orchestras have managed to find other community partners and have used technology to reach more audiences.

The Parma Symphony Orchestra partners with Parma Area Community Television to broadcast the recorded performances on the local cable channel and then post the recordings on the orchestra’s Facebook page.

The Euclid Symphony Orchestra is now accepting auditions via video submissions—an idea that was originally conceived at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. And concert attendees now have the option to access a digital program on their phones, instead of a paper one.

Despite the honor of having the world class Cleveland Orchestra in our hometown, the many community orchestras around Northeast Ohio have an equal importance in contributing to our rich classical music culture.

“I think it really speaks to the vibrancy of the arts community here in Cleveland that we have one of the top five orchestras in the country here and still have all of these community orchestras.” says the Euclid Symphony’s Salvaggio. “Community orchestras are largely supported by and focus their efforts on a particular community.”

Read more articles by Kelly Quinn Sands.

Kelly Quinn Sands is a freelance writer, digital content professional, lifelong Cleveland resident, and Cleveland State University alumna. When she’s not busy behind her keyboard, you will often find her behind her guitar writing songs or outside tending to her garden.