The words “symphony” and “accessible” don’t always go together. Often, tickets to see live orchestral performances can be quite expensive and the atmosphere can feel a little elitist. That’s why the Warwick Symphony Orchestra is so special.
Started in 1966 by George Low as a partnership with Warwick Public Schools, the Warwick Symphony Orchestra is all about community. Most of its members are adult amateurs from the area, with a large portion of students from the University of Rhode Island to also account for. Though they previously performed within central Rhode Island, they’re expanding outwards to other cities and towns thanks to Musical Director Catherine Gagnon.
Gagnon came to Rhode Island in the mid-1990s to attend URI and graduated with a degree in music education. Her main instrument was the French horn, but as a music teacher, it was also important to master other instruments, like the piano. In 2011, she became the Music Director of the WSO and started to really shake things up.
Helping other musicians around the state was crucial to Gagnon, and as a URI alumna, it was important to her to work with students from the university to create new things. Commissioning new pieces from students and collaborating with other musicians are two of her favorite things about working with the WSO.
“I really wanted to bring something new to our audiences, something they hadn’t heard before,” says Gagnon.
In keeping with that strong spirit of collaboration, the WSO has commissioned Katherine Loo, a student composer at URI, to write an original piece in memory of Ernest Nordman, a late viola player who belonged to the group for over 30 years. The piece is written for four violas and will be performed during their early December concert series, along with a few arrangements for brass and percussion by Bach and Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn – a complicated choral and orchestral piece never before attempted by the group. Two different chorus groups from URI will join them for the performances on December 1 and 2 at the URI Fine Arts Center and St. Timothy’s Church. The concerts will also feature a few holiday pieces. “Y’know, ‘tis the season!” Gagnon laughs.
Speaking of churches like St. Timothy’s, Gagnon also made a push to not only see the orchestra perform in more cities and towns throughout the state, but also to see them perform in more traditional concert venues, such as the Gamm Theatre, now in Warwick, and the Cold Spring Band Shell in North Kingstown.
“You limit your audience a little when you only perform in churches or senior centers [because] there are people who don’t want to go in those sorts of buildings,” she says. “We’re really working on expanding our audiences. I’ve told them that we’d go to a factory and perform for the people who work there. We want to reach new ears.”
Gagnon and the WSO accomplish this in many ways. First, they keep their ticket prices low. Live symphony concerts and orchestral performances can be very expensive. Theater tickets often sell out very quickly and become more expensive as the performance date draws closer. Tickets to a Broadway show can easily break $200, especially if it’s a popular hit like Hamilton or Wicked. Gagnon and the organization have worked hard to preserve their affordable prices: $15 general admission tickets, $12 senior tickets, and free entry for kids under the age of twelve.
“I’ve seen parents bring two, three, four, five kids to a performance. They bring their own kids and their kids’ friends to see something they maybe wouldn’t normally be exposed to. I don’t foresee ticket prices going up anytime in the future.”
The WSO also wants to see their hard-working orchestra perform for the community. Classical music isn’t always appealing to everyone; it can be overly complex or hard to comprehend for those who don’t have a very broad understanding of music theory and composition. That’s why the WSO is putting on a spring series called “A Night at the Movies” that will feature music from the very popular continuation of the Harry Potter Series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Grease, Chicago, Forrest Gump, and The Wizard of Oz to name a few. The series will also feature popular classical music used in film and television that audiences will probably be familiar with, such as The William Tell Overture.
One of the other changes Gagnon made was to make sure the WSO wasn’t playing strictly in central Rhode Island, and to try performing everywhere around the state.
“It’s no big deal for us to bring 50 chairs and set up in the middle of the zoo!”
So that’s exactly what they’re going to do. From North Kingstown to Sakonnet Vineyard, the WSO will be traveling around the state the summer of 2019 to perform what they’re calling “Pop Up Concerts” – free concerts in various venues where they’ll play everything from Broadway to patriotic music to Top 40 Hits.
“Each one will be slightly different,” Gagnon assures.
The WSO is attempting to change the view on symphonic music and make it more inviting to everyone. Gagnon and her fellow colleagues and musicians are dedicated to performing for the community, in a way they can appreciate and experience fully.
“This season has more concerts than previous seasons,” Gagnon explains. “The orchestra has really grown and is participating in increasingly more challenging musical productions.”