The ad read: “Starting a symphony orchestra in Ridgefield. All interested instrumentalists phone Marcus Fischer for time and place of first rehearsal.”
The ad, which ran in The Ridgefield Press in 1964, attracted 20 players. Five were professional musicians. The others were teachers, businessmen, housewives, scientists and high-school students. They established themselves as a non-profit corporation and named themselves “The Ridgefield Symphonette.”
Mr. Fischer, a French horn player in the New York Philharmonic, was the first conductor and president of the Symphonette. The other four musician/founders included two violinists and two pianists. Bill Rodier played violin for many years in the orchestra as did Marguerite Fischer, Mr. Fischer’s wife. She eventually became a concertmaster.
As for the pianists, Agatha Filgate starred as a member of Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra, and George Leeman, Sr., worked for CBS radio in New York as a composer and arranger for Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Arthur Godfrey.
George Leeman, Jr., a longtime Ridgefielder, has served on the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra board of directors, and now volunteers as the orchestra’s historian. Most of the historical material in this article is taken from Mr. Leeman’s work, “A Fifty Year History of the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra.” (A version is available at: ridgefieldsymphony.org/rso-history.)
The small but spirited Symphonette, with an annual budget of about $3000, made its debut April 4, 1965, to a standing-room-only audience at Veterans Park Elementary School.
As the Symphonette improved, using only professional musicians, it became the Ridgefield Orchestra (1976). When it had mastered the most difficult works of the symphonic repertoire, it became the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra (1986).
Now, coming up on half a century since the Veterans Park debut, the RSO is a fully professional organization with a core of 79 musicians and a budget of around $550,000. On May 16, 2015, the orchestra will salute the Ridgefield Symphonette and celebrate the Ridgefield Symphony in a Golden Anniversary Concert. Showcasing the talent and maturity achieved in 50 years, the RSO will play one of the most stunning and challenging works of the symphonic repertoire: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Music Director Gerald Steichen, the orchestra’s leader for six seasons, will conduct.
A symphonette doesn’t become a symphony unless a number of people pay attention. Thet that produces the present that forms the future depends on dedication — especially in a not-for-profit organization.
RSO board members over the years have “sold subscriptions, organized fund-raisers, given programming input, and supported the musicians and the music director,” said Christopher Bennett, incoming president of the symphony board of directors. Most importantly, “They talked up the orchestra!”
Mr. Bennett praised past presidents Jeanne Cook and Sabina Slavin, along with Donna Case, who was board president until last June. All have “devoted enormous time, heart and imagination to the orchestra,” Mr. Bennett said.
President Bennett’s own goals include “listening to what our audience wants to hear.” By “audience” he doesn’t mean “just the folks who buy tickets and currently sit in the seats.” He’s looking at potential concert-goers — “the folks we want to attract to our concerts and events during this 50th anniversary season and in the future.”
The RSO board has hired a new executive director, Larry Kopp. He has been executive director for four other professional symphony orchestras. Having a “top quality, professional orchestra in a town the size of ours is truly a unique accomplishment,” Mr. Kopp said.
In his opinion, an orchestra should never stop striving. Ongoing success demands “performances that continue to improve in quality and programs that meet the needs of the community,” he said.
Until they left office in June, executive director Gina Wilson and board president Donna Case emphasized community outreach. Both highlighted the “RSO Goes to School” program that brings Ridgefield Symphony musicians into local elementary schools.
Ms. Wilson engaged with Danbury Hospital to produce “Sweet Dreams,” a CD of classic lullabies to soothe babies in the Spratt Family Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. When the tiny patients leave, their families receive a CD free-of-charge.
Ms. Wilson also created collaborations with the Ridgefield Guild of Artists and the Conservatory of Dance. These joint artistic efforts make “orchestras around the country more relevant,” she said, because they “enhance the performance experience for audiences.”
Looking back at her tenure, Ms. Case values the pops concerts she and the board added to the RSO season “to appeal to a younger audience — and therefore increase the filled seats for each event.”
The “filled seats” issue is a frequent issue in a director’s mind. Ms. Case and her board “worked very diligently on streamlining the budget and curbing spending so as to take less money from our foundation,” she said.
No orchestra can continually create transcendent beauty without solid finances. One of the board’s main goals during the 50th anniversary season is to raise $500,000 in a Golden Anniversary Campaign.
“It’s a once-in-a-50-year opportunity to create a safety net that can do any number of good things” without tapping foundation money, said Treasurer Dan O’Brien. He pointed out that ticket sales account for only 24% of the year’s revenue. A supplemental fund “could make the difference in supporting our community outreach or in producing an extraordinary concert,” Mr. O’Brien said.
Ms. Case and her board also revised the RSO’s mission statement, which now reads, in part:
“The RSO seeks to enrich the cultural life of the citizens of Ridgefield and surrounding towns…[and] strives to increase the appreciation for and knowledge of orchestral music through community involvement and educational programs for persons of all ages.”
A year-long celebration
While the May, 2015, performance is the designated anniversary concert, the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra fully intends to celebrate its 50th birthday all season.
The Oct. 4 concert (8 p.m. in the Anne Richardson Auditorium at Ridgefield High School) will open opens with the Fanfare for Ridgefield by Edmund Cionek and close with the classic Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, one of the most popular piano concertos of all time.
The Holiday Concert on Dec. 6 will feature vocalist Heather Buck singing seasonal favorites along with a special performance by First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
Many other selections, from Dvorak’s New World Symphony to a performance by the trio “The Rat Pack” (Las Vegas music from the 60’s), will be offered throughout the year. For information on the season and tickets, visit ridgefieldsymphony.org.