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‘Hidden gem’ of a symphony begins 49th season

By Mary Canrobert

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  • Want to go?

    Enjoy “Hot Time in Downtown Tonight,” a free Western Piedmont Chamber Orchestra concert at 5 p.m. Sept. 29 on Union Square in downtown Hickory. Bring a chair and have a picnic. For individual or season tickets, to donate to WPS, or for information, visit WPSymphony.org, call 828-324-8603, or visit the WPS offices at 243 Third Ave. N.E., Suite 1-N; Hickory.


  • Masterworks concerts

    Oct. 18: “Fiddlin’ & Pickin’ with the Kruger Brothers,” 7:30 p.m., J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, Lenoir

    Nov. 9: “Fun & Romance with Gregory Knight, Piano,” 7:30 p.m. P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Hickory

    Feb. 8: “Sonic Boom with Kenneth Miller, Organ,” 7:30 p.m., First Baptist Church, Hickory

    March 8: “Virtuosi of the Orchestra with Laura Stevens and Anna Morris, Flute & Oboe,” 7:30 p.m., SALT Block Auditorium, Hickory

    April 12: “We Bid Adieu with Kontras Quartet,” 7:30 p.m., P.E. Monroe, Hickory



The Western Piedmont Symphony is about to begin its 49th season.

Fans of the Hickory-based orchestra are well aware of the magnitude of talent available within an easy driving distance. The symphony has been called a gem, especially for a city the size of Hickory. Western Piedmont Artistic Director and Conductor John Gordon Ross responded to the metaphor with, “It’s a gem for a city five times this size.”

“Every single member of the orchestra is in his own right a star,” said Ross, adding that nearly all the orchestra’s members are professional musicians with advanced degrees, men and women who “are very involved as educators,” said Ross, listing Lenoir-Rhyne University, Appalachian State University, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro as examples of the schools at which numerous WPS musicians teach. Many also perform in studio recordings.

But the biggest reason WPS is a gem, said Ross, is “because the people who play in the orchestra love to play with one another. Our players genuinely care about each other.”

There’s a problem, though. Not enough people know WPS exists. Hickory resident Reggie Helton said friends thought he was moving from Catawba County when they read on Facebook last year that he’d taken the job of WPS executive director. “People need to know we’re here,” said Helton. “Our brand needs to be stronger.”

Helton pointed out that WPS offers three legs of programming: the orchestra itself; a string quartet residency, which Helton said is the only such residency in North Carolina; and the youth symphony comprised of mostly middle and high school students from numerous counties, who audition to participate.

“Our (youth) ensembles look like America,” said Ross, who’s in his 22nd year with WPS. Ross said the youth symphony embraces a variety of ethnicities and economic levels.

WPS graces all ages with its bounteous classical presentations. For the youngest, the WPS quartet-in-residence – currently the Kontras Quartet – offers Rug Concerts at Hickory’s Patrick Beaver Memorial Library and Ridgeview Branch Library. For school-age kids, WPS sends its chamber orchestra or resident quartet to elementary and middle schools in six area school districts. For seniors, there’s Silver Serenades at local retirement communities. Members of WPS play at weddings, special community events, and funerals.

For all ages, there’s the yearly Masterworks Concert Series at which the entire symphony performs with special appearances by guest musicians or highlighted orchestra members. The 2013-14 season includes five such performances with the first featuring fiddlin’ ‘n’ pickin’ with the Kruger Brothers on Oct. 18 at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center on Hwy 321 in Lenoir.

Also for everyone is the Chamber Classics Series. This season includes four performances. The first is Oct. 27 at the SALT Block Auditorium at 243 Third Ave. N.E. in Hickory.

“We’d love to grow the audience,” Ross said. WPS is reminding long-time Hickory-area residents of their own symphony; letting newcomers know they’ve moved to a region where classical music is appreciated; and telling visitors there’s a first-rate symphony in town.

Next, Ross and Helton agree that WPS needs its own building. “We need a dedicated, good acoustical space,” Ross explained.

“I wish we had a permanent home,” said Helton. “This year (the orchestra and chamber members) are playing in eight different venues.”

Such is not best for the orchestra or its patrons. Helton repeatedly expressed gratitude to the folks who allow the orchestra to perform at locations such as J.E. Broyhill Civic Center and P.E. Monroe Auditorium, but a performing arts center is what’s needed.

“Our orchestra plays at a level that is very high right now,” Ross said. “The acoustical environment, however, is not ideal.”

“There’s so much music in this region,” said Ross, suggesting all would benefit from a facility designed for optimum musical quality.

Finally, Helton has an idea that might entice young adults to become symphony-goers. “I would like to create a live video feed of the orchestra from several vantage points on stage,” Helton said. “This signal would broadcast so that members of the audience could use their mobile devices and see the performance from the musician’s point of view. They would become part of the orchestra.”

Helton said Century Link already has agreed to provide the broadband signal to make the project a reality. The next step, he said, will be the purchase of the cameras and router hardware, which he hopes to complete sometime this year.

“I think this approach will appeal to younger audiences by giving them multiple visual choices to enjoy the orchestra,” said Helton, who added that guests who participate in this novel approach to the symphony experience will sit in a special area of the auditorium, their mobile devices remaining silent. The purists, those who want to enjoy the symphony without the distraction of people tapping on pods, pads, and phones would sit well away from the techies.

Another good reason to enjoy the symphony is because it’s affordable: $15 will get you into a single concert; $50 will get you five. A few bucks more, and you’ve got a better seat.

Gems are usually hidden by the earth and have to be dug out. Not WPS. It’s been shining for years in Western North Carolina – appreciated by many, anxious to be enjoyed by many more. It’s music. Well crafted.

Mary Canrobert is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Mary? Email her at marycanrobert@charter.net.

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