Auburn Symphony, a South King County Treasure
Opening its 16th season Oct. 21, the Auburn Symphony Orchestra departs its usual format for a special concert, Music Especially for You, playing familiar favorites at the Auburn Performing Arts Center. Musicians and conductor are donating their services and the one-time-only performance benefits the orchestra’s reserves. I sat down to talk with founding music director and conductor Stewart Kershaw (former Pacific Northwest Ballet conductor, retired 2009) and general manager Lee Valenta (ASO founding board member).
What was the rationale behind starting the orchestra? Why Auburn?
KERSHAW: I’d been conducting at PNB since 1983, and was chomping at the bit to find somewhere I could use these fine musicians in a concert venue instead of always being in the pit.
How did it come about?
KERSHAW: By chance. I met a couple of friends one night, including the cultural program coordinator for the City of Auburn, Josie Emmons. She was saying two Seattle Symphony visits a year were not enough classical fare for Auburn.
I said: ‘Would you like your own orchestra?’ We began a rough budget on a paper napkin of what it would cost for Auburn. She investigated, and the next day said: ‘Let’s go ahead.’ We found an intial group of Auburn residents for a Board of Trustees, did the paperwork, and played our first concert February 1997. It took us maybe nine months.
VALENTA: We wouldn’t be here without the City of Auburn. Mayor Pete Lewis and the council have been supportive pretty much for the entire 15 years. They believe the arts are an integral part of the city.
What about the musicians?
KERSHAW: The PNB orchestra were very excited about it. What I did not want to do was to found a semi-amateur orchestra. I intended to start from the top with the finest area musicians outside the Seattle Symphony.
You had a job. Why put in all this effort?
KERSHAW: I wanted to give the musicians the opportunity to perform symphonic repertoire in fully professional surroundings.
VALENTA: The PNB orchestra is all professional freelancers. They play in the pit at the 5th Avenue Theatre and the Paramount, for Northwest Sinfonietta, they sub in the Seattle Symphony, they teach. They play all over.
Who is your audience? What is your programming like?
VALENTA: Auburn is an expanding community thanks to Sounder. It allows people to live in Auburn and work in Seattle.
KERSHAW: Along with both usual and unusual classics, I like to throw in something that will challenge the orchestra, like Bartok or Shostakovich. It’s also a challenge for the audience in discovering some unfamiliar classical music.
How did the musicians respond when you asked them to donate their services for this concert?
VALENTA: The reaction was heartwarming. 95% said they’d play. They said they’d do anything to keep the orchestra going, they love playing in Auburn, and they appreciate that the board and community treat them well.
KERSHAW: I’m so proud of them. Many have been with us since Day One. We’ve played symphonic repertoire they might never have had the chance to do otherwise. For this benefit concert it’s like a dozen familiar hors d’oeuvres I‘ve tried to make contrasting, from the Lone Ranger to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March which everybody knows from graduation.
Do you do educational or outreach progams?
VALENTA: We’re in our eighth season of four chamber music programs a year. This year we are doing the Mendelssohn Octet with four of our musicians and four members of the Seattle Youth Symphony.
KERSHAW: Every year, I audition high school students in South King County and the best are invited to play a concert with us. We have student prices, and we host about 20 kids from West Auburn High School
VALENTA: It’s very important to replace the current generation of concertgoers and encourage the next one coming up.
KERSHAW: It they don’t have exposure to the arts, their lives are going to be that much poorer.
How many hats do each of you wear?
KERSHAW: I do most of the work as personnel manager, a little fundraising and socialize as much as I can
VALENTA: And you do the preconcert lectures, write the program notes, and introduce the music to the audience. I do everything else, fundraising, ticket orders, putting the program book together, the budget, dealing with the board, writing grants.
KERSHAW: We’re trying with this benefit to replenish our reserves to ensure another five years of the Auburn Symphony.
VALENTA: We don’t want suddenly to disappear like some other orchestras have. The economic downnturn has affected us, we’re not unique. But this season is a go, thanks to the musicians and some grants.
For information and tickets: www.auburnsymphony.org