THE PARTIAL OBSERVER by ERNA MORGAN MCREYNOLDS
Why did I say yes? How could I have let myself be persuaded to compete to be the guest conductor of the Catskill Symphony Orchestra? Especially for the Cabaret concert, which is the symphony’s biggest fundraiser. Thinking back to my experience in the late 1990s, I can’t help but reflect and recall that without the extra money from this annual event, the symphony would have folded and our region would have lost a most valuable asset.
Classical music for families in rural upstate New York? The Cabaret concert is one of our region’s most prized annual events. Entire families dressed up and sometimes trudged through snow for this mid-winter concert, carrying beautiful picnic baskets with table cloths, special drinks, wine, and beautifully prepared hors d’oeuvres—and even desserts—with thermoses of hot drinks. Some concertgoers left their kids home and used this as a date night, or an excuse for a night out with friends.
Excerpts from “My Fair Lady” and “Chicago” and “Sound of Music,” maybe even a Beatles tune or two, lured those who may have shuddered when they read the words “classical” or “symphony.” What could be better than the chance to sit right in front of a full orchestra with a glass of wine listening to real, recognizable music?
To make the Cabaret even better, that year the master of ceremonies, well-known Oneontan Larry Heldman, did what Leonard Bernstein had done in his famous “Young People’s Concerts” with the New York Philharmonic. Beethoven came to life. We were excited to hear something as strange sounding as “Eroica”— Beethoven’s famous third symphony—which would have caused many to try to escape before Larry sucked them in.
This is where I come into the story. The winner of the Cabaret guest conductor contest got to lead the orchestra. If I did everything right—I could wield real power. I could conduct a symphony orchestra. I would be a star! All I had to do was raise more money than the other contestants.
When I played clarinet in Gilbertsville Central School, I had never dreamed that I might conduct an orchestra. To be in front waving a baton, that I could make all of those musicians speed up or slow down. I could guide them to become louder or quieter, or maybe halt these musicians in mid-measure. A professional symphony orchestra was way above a high school marching band.
How did I find my way to the rostrum? Whoever raised the most money won and got the chance to conduct the orchestra. How was I supposed to do that? Every year, the symphony found three or four people who would volunteer to stand in the spotlight (and potentially submit to humiliation). You hoped that enough of your friends would throw a check into the hat. You would also toss in as big a check from your own bank account as you could afford.
That year seemed different. The symphony desperately needed the money. If we didn’t raise enough money at this Cabaret, the Catskill Symphony Orchestra would be out of business. There was no more money.
The Catskill Symphony Orchestra was then, and is today, a shining gem in our region. How lucky are we? Oneonta is one of the smallest communities in the country to host a real symphony orchestra—and for nearly 70 years! Our children can hear this special music. You can live in one of our tiny, nearby villages and have front-row access to the brilliant creativity and culture normally reserved for big-city dwellers. My husband and I can live a dozen miles away in the middle of the woods and, in just a short drive, sample the greatest works in music. This is a privilege and that privilege comes with a perennial ask: to raise enough money at Cabaret to keep our humble community symphony alive and to keep the music playing.
Looking back, not only did I risk humiliation if I were to lose the guest conductor contest, but we collectively took the risk that we could all lose much, much more. We had to make this concert pay the orchestra’s bills. Tickets don’t pay the bills; they don’t cover the costs. Donations and fundraisers are what keeps the symphony playing.
The Symphony’s Fundraising Committee lassoed three or four of us to jump into the ring in the battle for guest conductor. This was when my “I can’t lose” gene kicked in. We had to win for the symphony and I had to win because I couldn’t bear to lose. Most lucky I was that my family and friends felt the same: Make Erna win and keep the symphony solvent.
Taking on this challenge, how could we guarantee that I would be the one on the podium? That the symphony would get the money it needed? We made a plan.
We wouldn’t wait until the night of the concert. We would call our friends, our relatives, our colleagues and our vendors. We wouldn’t stop until we got checks or at least pledges. We didn’t know how much the others were raising but we did know that we faced stiff competition.
After intermission, the orchestra kept playing while the votes (measured in dollars donated to the symphony, for a specific guest conductor’s performance) were counted. Some good friends and my husband worried that we might not have raised enough—so they wrote additional checks (sort of stuffing the ballot box).
I remained perched on the edge of my seat. We knew that we had raised a lot of money. The moment came and Larry announced: “Our winner—Erna McReynolds.” He shared how much my efforts raised, through me, my husband, my family, friends and all of those I reached out to throughout the community. The audience leapt to its feet and delivered a heartfelt standing ovation for all of us. The music would continue.
Now, the really scary part: I had never held a baton in my hand. I had never climbed on a podium facing an orchestra. I was terrified. This was not a Cabaret like the one coming up on March 25 this year. No rehearsal. No clever outfits.
One tiny bit of reassurance: Concerts are dress-up occasions. My husband had bought me a special black velvet dress—and with a special back designed to charm the audience.
Applause filled the room. I climbed the stairs to the stage and tripped onto the podium. Picking up the baton (I still don’t know if I held it the right way…), I tapped on the music stand. The musicians picked up their instruments. I raised my baton. I was terrified. Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” came blasting toward me from the orchestra and blew me backward. I nearly pitched off the podium in a back flip from the stage onto the concert hall floor.
Wow. This was more powerful, better than I had dreamed. My hands trembled. I couldn’t even stick to the beat. How did those musicians cope with me?
But I kept bravely waving my baton until the trumpets stood up. Back at it again. Waving my baton. It would soon be over, fortunately. I could get the orchestra to stand and take its bows. I could take my final bow.
The real prize, the real triumph for you and me, for our children, our communities—we raised enough money to keep the music playing that year and for years beyond. We hit our goal. I hit my goal and made sure our children continued to get that special concert each year.
Every year, my husband and I sponsor this very special concert: to honor my sister, to help make sure we all keep this music alive.
Today the Catskill Symphony Orchestra needs your help as much as it did nearly three decades ago when we brought it roaring back to life. Let’s keep the music playing. Join me at the Cabaret on March 25 at SUNY Oneonta and vote for your favorite guest conductor candidate. Keep on voting. Put your dollars (votes) in the bags—every dollar you can afford. Vote for everyone—recognize their time, tribute and willingness to take the spotlight for a few moments, doing something they’ve never done before (in front of the entire town!) Make an extra donation. Buy season tickets. Be a sponsor. Support a powerful resource for our area’s children, and the brilliant musicians that make it all possible.
In these times, the symphony needs the money more than ever. Let’s keep the music playing.