By George Basler
Heading into its 2023-24 season, the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra has the intertwined goals of performing great music and continuing to expand its audience beyond people who have traditionally attended its concerts.
As part of this effort, the board hired Dr. Julia Grella O’Connell in May as the new director of education and community engagement.
Grella O’Connell has a lengthy resume as a musicologist. A former opera singer, she received a doctorate in music from the City University of New York and taught at the City College of New York and Hunter College before coming to Broome County 15 years ago. After relocating here, she taught at SUNY Broome for nine years while creating a course in African American music history.
Grella O’Connell sees her job with the Philharmonic as introducing new audiences to the orchestra and “confirming for our already existing audience the greatness of this institution.”
Similarly, she wants to introduce new audiences to “the great tradition of Western musical history.” Her promotional efforts will include lectures and community events.
The Philharmonic’s first classical concert is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Broome County Forum Theatre in Binghamton. It will feature Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5., Aaron Copland’s Variations on a Shaker Melody and Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto with cellist Annie Jacobs-Perkins.
To promote the concert, Grella O’Connell has planned two free community events for Thursday, Sept. 28.
One event is a lecture/demonstration, “Nostalgia, Loss and Great War in Elgar’s Cello Concerto,” at 2 p.m.at the Kilmer Mansion, 9 Riverside Drive, Binghamton. Grella O’Connell and Jacobs-Perkins will discuss Elgar’s iconic work and how it reflected English society and a longing for the past following the cataclysm of the First World War.
The second event, aimed directly at families and children, is a family-friendly presentation of the music and dance of the Shakers at 6:30 p.m. at The Forum. The Shakers were a religious community in America in the late 1700s and 1800s. Their memory is carried on through their music, such as the folk song “Simple Gifts” that Copland took as the melody for Variations on a Shaker Melody.
Those in attendance at the family event will also get a behind-the-scenes tour of The Forum while the orchestra prepares for rehearsal. In addition, adult first-time concert goers can receive vouchers for free tickets for the Sept. 30 concert. (Children 17 and under already can attend concerts for free courtesy of M&T Bank.)
Grella O’Connell recognizes there are “certain barriers” to getting people into a concert hall. They may be unfamiliar with classical music or perceive this music as “only for gray hairs and rich people.”
That’s a perception Grella O’Connell wants to change. She points to her mother as an example.
Far from rich, the woman was a factory worker and single mother in her native Chicago who loved classical music and would regularly attend concerts of the Chicago Symphony. She would climb to the upper balcony to hear the orchestra even though she had a fear of heights and had to hold on tight to the railing to get to her seat.
“The music is for everyone,” Grella O’Connell said, adding, “People can find their own selves reflected in the music.”
The centerpiece of the Philharmonic’s Sept. 30 concert is a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The performance is part of the orchestra’s initiative to play all of Beethoven’s symphonies over a several-year period. Symphony No. 5 is one of the best-known compositions in classical music. Its four note opening motif – da, da, da, DA! — has shown up in everything from disco versions to rock ‘n’ roll covers.
Daniel Hege, the Philharmonic’s musical director, will conduct the concert.
The Philharmonic’s season will feature three more classical concerts and four pops concerts through next May. The orchestra also has four chamber music concerts planned for the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton.
In addition, Grella O’Connell will promote the orchestra with free public lectures scheduled for Nov. 30, Jan. 18, and March 21. She also will hold two more free Family Symphony Sessions: “Music as Play” on Nov. 16 and “Fandango!” on April 4.
“I want people to know, if they come to the concert hall, they’ll hear the orchestra tune up and play great music,” Grella O’Connell said.
More information on all of the Philharmonic’s season is available on www.binghamtonphilharmonic.org. Click on events.
IF YOU GO: At 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Broome County Forum Theatre, 236 Washington St., Binghamton, Binghamton Philharmonic Music Director Daniel Hege will conduct Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Copland’s Variations on a Shaker Melody and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Tickets are available through the Philharmonic’s website, www.binghamtonphilharmonic.org. Children 17 and under can receive free tickets. A pre-concert chat at 6:30 p.m. will feature Dr. Julia Grella O’Connell, the Philharmonic’s new director of education and community engagement.