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Community orchestras can be a hit-and-miss affair, plagued by some of the same challenges that even professional orchestras face: deficit budgets, lackluster attendance, and graying audiences. Sometimes the musicianship can be less than stellar.
But the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, now approaching its 70th season, has plenty of reasons to celebrate.
“We’re in a strong position financially, we have an outstanding board, and with Lawrence Eckerling, we have a great music director,” said ESO General Manager David Ellis. “Plus the caliber of playing has never been better.” Within the last 10 years, the Illinois Council of Orchestras has singled out the ESO three times as best in the state. Mr. Ellis was named General Manager of the Year in 2012 and Mr. Eckerling Conductor of the Year in 2007 and 2014. And in a ceremony before the orchestra’s May 31 concert, board vice president Sarah Flax was named Volunteer of the Year.
“All in all, we’re in great shape,” Mr. Ellis said.
Recently the orchestra marked the 50th anniversaries of two players – Rick Greene, French horn, and Linda Keller, clarinet, who joined in the 1965-66 season. They received plaques from the board president during a rehearsal. Violist Lynn Malnekoff started in the 1963-64 season, though she skipped a few years in the ’90s. Altogether the three musicians have played with the ESO collectively almost 150 years.
Their recollections make for a fascinating retrospective of an orchestra that started on a shoestring in 1945 by returning GIs.
“I joined in the Frank Miller era,” recalled Mr. Greene. (The principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony served as music director of the ESO from 1962 to 1983.) “He was like a father figure to his devoted ESO musicians. When Frank described the musicality he sought, people would call out, ‘Play it for us, Frank!’ Reluctantly he would step down from the podium, borrow the principal cellist’s instrument and perform, to the rapt attention of the musicians.”
Mr. Greene also recalled soloists of international caliber that Mr. Miller would bring in to perform, such as his cousin, cellist Leonard Rose; violinist Michael Rabin; baritone William Warfield; and another famous cellist, Janos Starker. At the dress rehearsal preceding his performance Mr. Starker turned to the musicians and said, “I just came from performing with the Detroit Symphony, and I’d much rather be here.”
Ms. Keller says she joined because “my boyfriend played bass trombone in the orchestra. What better reason to audition? A year later he secured a position with the Phoenix Symphony. So much for our relationship. He left. I stayed.”
She listed as highlights the recent presentation of one of Mr. Miller’s batons to Mr. Eckerling, a symbolic passing of the torch. “Of course I had played under Frank for many years – such a superb musician. It was almost as if his knowledge were being passed to a new generation.”
Commenting on how the orchestra has changed, Ms. Keller said, “Larry has upped our game by selecting more difficult repertoire each season. It has enabled us, as individuals and as a group, to play better and more confidently. We have become more professional and I believe our nearly full-house audiences enjoy and appreciate our high standards.”
Ms. Malnekoff said that “my mother took me to my first Evanston Symphony Orchestra concert when I was still in grade school. I loved it and never forgot the joy and excitement of hearing a live, grown-up orchestra for the very first time.” When she graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1963 with a degree in Music Education she joined the symphony. “I was pretty shy about meeting new people, but members of the orchestra reached out to me with a warm welcome and I immediately felt at home.”
As for comparing the Frank Miller era with now, Ms. Malnekoff says, “The orchestra could always play the notes and put on a good performance. But, I must say that under the baton of current Maestro Eckerling, the ESO is the best it has ever been.”