Playing Our Tune
Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra has come a long way in 50 years
As it stands today, the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra (RSO) would be unrecognizable to the five local musicians who founded it in 1965 and dubbed it the Ridgefield Symphonette. The original group featured 20 musicians, the majority of whom were amateurs—teachers, scientists, and high-school students. The small, yet enthusiastic group made its debut on April 4, 1965, to a standing-room only crowd at Veterans Park Elementary School.
In the 50 years since, the organization has changed both in name and in prestige, burgeoning into a professional orchestra with a roster of 70 musicians. Entering its golden anniversary year the RSO promises to continue its tradition of delighting audiences with a versatile repertoire that seamlessly blends master classics with contemporary favorites.
At the helm is Music Director Gerald Steichen, (pictured left) who has distinguished himself for his versatility during a long career spanning from national tours with popular theatre productions such as Phantom of the Opera, to ten seasons with the New York City Opera, to stints as a guest conductor of the Boston Pops. “I had been a guest conductor before but never the principle conductor,” Steichen says of his appointment to the position in 2008. “It’s a good combination of my skills. You have to be a good organizer of people, and I love musicians.”
Steichen, who refers to himself as the “unseen force” behind the orchestra’s productions currently divides his time between the RSO and his positions as pops conductor of the Utah Symphony and the associate conductor of the New Haven Symphony.
Says Steichen, Ridgefield is unique in its decision to financially support a professional orchestra. “They definitely make it a priority,” adding that most towns of Ridgefield’s size instead opt for community orchestras, where members are generally amateurs, and are not compensated for their work.
Due to the support of the community, the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra is able to employ a full roster of professional musicians, and audience members are able to enjoy world-class entertainment close to home. “The best music is not always made by professional musicians,” muses principal trumpet player John Charles Thomas. “But they do bring a level of training and expertise.”
At a typical practice session RSO musicians arrive punctually and with their parts well practiced beforehand, says Thomas. “A unit can only move as fast as its weakest link. We are proud of not having weak links.” He adds: “We enjoy each other’s playing and personalities. We joke within the orchestra that people’s instruments are a reflection of their personalities,” explaining how his outgoing, authoritative personality has been likened to the sounds of his trumpet. “I love RSO weeks in my date book because I know I’m going to be amongst friends.”
Steichen has promised that the remaining concerts of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary year will be perfectly in tune with the standard of excellence that orchestra fans have come to expect, promising a special theme at every concert.
In December, First Selectman Rudy Marconi was invited to serve as a guest narrator for the RSO’s performance of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Next on the docket was a Rat Pack themed concert in which the legendary trio of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin were reincarnated in the form of contemporary artists Sal Viviano, Eric Jordan Young, and Nat Chandler, performed with the orchestra on March 7.
Further down the road the RSO held a 50th Anniversary Benefit Concert on March 22, featuring established audience favorites by masters including Mozart, Copland, and Strauss.
At any RSO concert, the small-town atmosphere of Ridgefield gives musicians the opportunity to connect personally with the audience. Thomas says he enjoys arriving at concerts early, and often finds himself “hanging out with audience members. Its great to see those same friendly faces,” he adds of regular concertgoers.
The enthusiasm of Ridgefield audiences is particularly appreciated in an age in which consumers are subject to the constant lure of electronic entertainment.
“We all have so many choices,” Steichen says. “We turn on the TV and have 2,000 channels.” Yet Steichen asserts that whatever might be on the TV screen pales in comparison to a live performance. “It’s kind of like going to a bullfight,” he says. “It only happens that one time.”