Living

Was it the final voyage for the flagship of Macon’s cultural arts?

Music director and conductor Gerald Steichen, left, coaxes the best from his violins as the Macon Symphony Orchestra rehearses for its final performance.
Music director and conductor Gerald Steichen, left, coaxes the best from his violins as the Macon Symphony Orchestra rehearses for its final performance. bcabell@macon.com

Jasmine Habersham grew up among us – we watched her become an accomplished student at Rutland High School; we were stunned by the voice when she made her first appearance with the Macon Symphony Orchestra as guest soprano several years ago, and on Oct. 14 she was once again on stage with the MSO when the orchestra made what has been described as its final voyage into the sunset.

For 41 years, the orchestra has been the flagship of the cultural arts scene in Middle Georgia so it is difficult to think we may not hear the magnificent sounds from the stage of the Grand Opera House again. One thing is certain – we will see and hear Jasmine Habersham again! She is a music director’s dream, and Jerry Steichen, who has served in that role for the past year for the MSO, could not hide the thrill of having her join the symphony as guest soloist, for “A Fond Farewell,” the one event for the year for the symphony as we have known it.

The program for the performance opened with “Festive Overture” by Dimitri Shostakovich, a glorious introduction to a full house that included many new faces, the very patrons that could facilitate another Macon Symphony Orchestra, possibly after a “brief rest,” as was stated in the program. Habersham’s voice soared as she reprised a role with which she is familiar, Juliet, in “Ah! Je veux vivre,” Juliet’s waltz from “Romeo and Juliet.” It was sung in French, but its yearning and hopefulness was clear to her audience.

Steichen’s selections for the evening were a journey from the familiar, old classics to popular compositions from the 20th century, an homage to the symphony’s journey from a small orchestra conducted by Harry Kruger from the Columbus College music department from 1976-1984, through Adrian Gnam’s 27-year tenure as music director and conductor, to the present, for which Steichen has been in the position for a year.

According to historical archives, the idea for an orchestra came from a request by Albert McKay, president of the Macon Historical Society in the early 1970s, for a musical tribute to poet Sidney Lanier. A cantata, written to Lanier’s poetry, was performed by local musicians for Lowen Marshall and Michael Schwartzkopf, the faculty members in Mercer’s music department who wrote the cantata. So successful was the event that plans were underway to form a community symphony.

As Steichen described Habersham in his farewell note to patrons, she “represents the best that Macon has to offer – talent, hard work and the future.” After intermission, Habersham sang Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” then surprised the audience when she strolled on to the stage to sing “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” showing off the full range and versatility of her talent.

Symphony No. 9, Antonin Dvorak’s the “New World Symphony,” or “Going Home” as it is familiarly known, was the final selection for the evening, a fitting reflection for a topic that is in the news – immigration. Dvorak, who lived in the US for a while, was inspired, by the opportunities he had in this country, to write this symphony in honor of his “new world.”

Although it was supposed to be the final performance for the evening, the audience demanded two encores, and the orchestra and guest soloist complied. The curtain for the MSO may one day be lifted after this final evening when a lot of eyes were opened to clearly understand what is needed to support a symphony of this caliber.

Congratulations to the board of directors of the MSO and to CEO Sheryl Towers for the candor, expressed in the program notes, in explaining the economic forces that have impacted donations to arts organizations, and particularly to symphonies that adhere to a classical format, in the last decade. For the last 10 years, the Macon Symphony Orchestra has defied the odds while many of similar size have folded and, the MSO symphony closes this chapter on 41 years with a sound reputation with musicians and with its financial house in order. All of the patrons that have dedicated time, talent and a lot of treasure deserve an encore.

Katherine Walden is a freelance writer and interior designer in Macon. Contact her at 478-742-2224 or kwaldenint@aol.com.

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