A 41-year-run for one of Macon’s cultural institutions is coming to an end this weekend.
The Macon Symphony Orchestra’s finale on Saturday was carefully laid out with grand symphonic classics and pop and Broadway musical pieces. The first half of the performance, in particular, will try to set a different mood from what will otherwise be sad occasion as the symphony takes one final bow before it disbands.
Although the thought of Saturday being the final concert is “crushing,” it’s also an opportunity to say thank you to the patrons, sponsors, musicians and a community that’s played important roles over the years, said Bob Veto, president of the symphony’s board of directors.
“I think a lot of the music will be celebratory in nature, particularly the first half will be very upbeat ... Dvorak, it’s a glorious piece of music. I think people will get a lot of enjoyment out of hearing that,” Veto said.
For about a decade, Veto and his wife have been season subscribers to the Macon Symphony Orchestra. And for the last handful of years, he has witnessed the financial perils facing the symphony while serving on the board.
With fewer concertgoers and sponsorships, the number of annual performances year went from six to four and then three. This year, Saturday’s swan song at the Grand Opera House is the lone concert.
“All in the name of trying to stop the bleeding,” Veto said. “Every time we staged a concert we lost money.”
The plan was to have the farewell concert in 2018, but while examining the financial balance sheets this year, that became unrealistic, Veto said.
“As we stared looking at early season ticket sales, pledges, individual and corporate sponsorships, we realized it wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
One factor in the symphony’s issues stems from the number of other cultural arts and concert options in the area. Sponsors in Middle Georgia are unable to provide the same level of financial backing they had in the past.
Culturally I think it’s leaving a void in the lives of people in Macon and Middle Georgia. It’s just one of the leafs on a community tree that unfortunately, at least for the time being, has fallen.
Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Larry Schlesinger
“There’s a lot going on in the town which is great, but the demand for classical symphonic music is from an older audience and it’s the younger audience that’s driving ticket sales,” Veto said. “(Macon Symphony CEO Sheryl Towers) did a terrific job. In a lot of ways she kept the doors open longer than a community this size can expect to keep a symphony.”
One of the staunchest supporters of the symphony orchestra has been Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Larry Schlesinger. Schlesinger, who became involved with classical music while playing the clarinet in his high school band, has purchased annual season subscriptions to the Macon symphony and served one term on the symphony board.
“I think symphonic music as a genre has sort of taken a backseat to electronic music but nevertheless offers an experience you can’t reproduce electronically,” Schlesinger said.
The Macon Symphony Orchestra departure is a blow to the community, he said.
“Culturally I think it’s leaving a void in the lives of people in Macon and Middle Georgia,” Schlesinger said. “It’s just one of the leafs on a community tree that unfortunately, at least for the time being, has fallen.”
During the formative years, the symphony orchestra was led by Harry Kruger, also a longtime director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. But the longest serving director of Macon’s ensemble was Maestro Adrian Gnam, who spent 27 years at the helm before conducting his finale in 2010.
And Gnam relished not only leading leading the musicians but also drumming up support from the community.
“A lot of what goes into the conductor (role) is how well prepared you are when it comes to rehearsals, you pick programs that are exciting for the audience, both in the pops realm and classical realm,” Gnam said.
“But that’s just the conductors job, the music director does many things conductors don’t like to do: the organizing, fundraising and management aspects,” Gnam said. “I enjoyed it and did it willingly. I think the community responded well.”
By the mid-2000s, the symphony orchestra successfully raised more than $1 million for an endowment program, which helped support outreach programs in Middle Georgia, attract high quality musicians and aimed to keep the symphony afloat should it face more troubling times.
One of Gnam’s greatest thrills was working with many of the musicians over the years who he was able to form close personal relationships with. Another enjoyment came from “passing great music onto the public in a community that would have not heard classical music unless they went to Atlanta, went to Savannah, to Columbus,” Gnam said.
“It’s so unfortunate it won’t be passed onto the younger people in the community or anyone in this community,” he said.
Gnam fondly remembers the Macon symphony performing pieces created by legendary composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
“We did a number of really big compositions: ‘Rite of Spring’ with Stravinsky, (‘Symphony No. 5’) by Mahler, Strauss tone poems, which is a real test of if a symphony can play a difficult repertoire,” Gnam said. “We reached so many people in the community, in the surrounding areas of Macon and not just Macon itself.”
Following Gnam’s departure in 2010, it took a four year search before the symphony board could find a permanent director. That’s when Ward Stare, who had served as the resident conductor for the St. Louis Symphony, signed a contract.
The Macon Symphony Orchestra’s final performance will be directed by Gerald Steichen, who was hired prior to the 40th season.
Schlesinger said although the symphony will no longer be active after Saturday, maybe there’s a chance it could return in later years.
“Moving forward I think this may be a temporary fix of the situation,” Schlesinger said. “I hope it’s not something permanent.”