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What's Up Magazine

The Faces of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra

Oct 31, 2013 02:29PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Beth Rubin // Photos by Tony Lewis, Jr.

This is the first article in a series exploring the local performing and fine arts scene through the eyes of the individuals who make it tick. We are extremely fortunate in this community to be surrounded by so much creativity and talent from organizations like the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, which we profile here. The articles in this series will give readers the opportunity to get to know the passionate individuals of our arts organizations in their element, behind the curtains, so to speak.

Happy 52nd birthday to the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra! (Don’t feel bad if you forgot to send a card. When it comes to this local treasure, anytime is the right time for a standing ovation.) To mark it’s 50th, the ASO had a marathon celebration during its 2011–12 season, from September 2011 to May 2012. In the Arts District, along West Street from Westgate Circle to Church Circle, colorful banners bearing the likenesses of the symphony’s six music directors trumpeted the symphony’s evolution and those who influenced it most.

Special panels showcasing ASO photos, news clips, and programs hung in state buildings, the Westfield Annapolis Mall, and Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts (the symphony’s current home). In May 2012 the panels were moved to the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, to accompany the ASO’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Grand Finale. If you missed the concert, imagine two hours of musical fi reworks. Internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves—born and bred down the road in Washington, D.C.— performed with the orchestra. And together they brought down the house.

Esteemed Music Director José-Luis Novo, who has wielded the ASO baton for eight years, says he was drawn to Annapolis because, “I knew the city was historic, and I knew of the orchestra. Leslie Dunner [the previous director] and I studied with the same teachers. The city had a tradition of good musical directors, so I knew the orchestra would be good.”

The charming, winsome maestro from Valladolid, Spain (northwest of Madrid), has not been disappointed. Nor have ASO musicians, audiences, or critics. By every measure, Novo has taken the orchestra to new heights. “The orchestra and I have grown artistically quite a lot,” he says. “When artists work with good colleagues, they feed each other, and both learn. It’s a reciprocal experience.”

“The relationship with the musicians has become very professional. Everyone enjoys what we’re doing. We enjoy performing. We’re in a good place. We have expanded the repertory. And we’re much more inclusive. We have many more women. We’ve had a composer in residence. We have famous soloists. We want the ASO to reflect what American society is, what the society is about. To survive, you have to bring in all constituencies of your community. We don’t want to leave anyone out.”

Novo has music in his blood. His father was a pianist and a music teacher “with a strong musical, piano, composition, and harmony” background. His four sisters studied music; one plays professionally. In his youth, Novo studied violin privately in Spain and was a member of the Spanish National Youth Orchestra. He moved to the states in the late ’80s, spending several years at the Yale University School of Music, then continuing his studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Cincinnati College- Conservatory School of Music. His first job was director of the Department of Music at the University of Miami (Ohio). He has led the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops, among having guest conducted others. In addition to the ASO, he conducts the Binghamton Philharmonic.

ASO’s future appears rosy in Novo’s viewfinder. “We have a great roster of guest artists.” Among them is pianist Peter Serkin, guest soloist November 1st to 2nd. “We must be worth performing with,” he quips. “People in the professional world are saying good things about us.”

Paul Herman, a second violinist with the symphony and longtime Annapolitan, joined the ASO in September 1971, when it was a community orchestra with two concerts a year. “I’m third in seniority,” he boasts. An Oberlin College graduate with a degree in French, he played in the school’s conservatory orchestra. After teaching and working in the private sector for many years, he shortened his commute to rehearsals by landing a job in Annapolis with Anne Arundel County.

In his early years with the symphony, he recalls, “I was a top dog. Many string players were amateurs. The rest of us did what we could…When Leon Fleischer [conductor, 1969–82] came in, he weeded out the non-professionals. Then things got better and better. Today I look at the other musicians and I’m gasping and practicing to keep up.”

Rehearsals, Herman says, “are telescoped into one week” before concerts. Everyone receives their music a couple of weeks ahead. “When we show up Monday evening, we’d better be prepared!” Monday is a full rehearsal, he explains. The first half of Tuesday is strings only, followed by a full rehearsal. Wednesday and Thursday are full, with the first half of Wednesday “devoted to the soloist.”

During the second half, “we rehearse whatever needs work. Thursday is a run-through with a few stops to polish.” Compared to Paul Herman, concertmaster Netanel Draiblate is the new kid on the block, filling the ASO’s first chair since September 2009. He began lessons at the age of six in his native Israel with his mother, a professional violinist and teacher. His father was a professional violinist, too. While most of his family remains in Israel, one brother is a cellist in the States and occasionally they perform together. Among his credits are concertmaster positions with the World Youth Orchestra, Israel Young Philharmonic, the Chicago College of Performing Arts Symphony, the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, and Lancaster (Penn.) Symphony Orchestra.

Draiblate lives outside Philadelphia, and comes to Annapolis a week at a time for rehearsals. “I stay with board members who host me. They’ve been wonderful,” he says. He may live in Pennsylvania, but he sounds like he’s found a home in Maryland.

“I love working with José-Luis,” he says. “We have similar outlooks. He wouldn’t play in a place if he didn’t feel that he had control and input.” As Concertmaster, Draiblate says, “I’m in a leadership role, after the conductor. It entails lots of changes.” The orchestra’s progress is organic, he says. “When one section improves, the other sections grow. The ASO keeps renewing itself. Last season we played Clarice Smith.” Draiblate applauds the venue. With no obstructed views from the concert hall’s 970 seats, and 24 acoustic screens that can be electronically adjusted, “the acoustics are much better than Maryland Hall [built as a high school],” he says. Few, if any, would argue.

Not surprisingly, at the top of his wish list—and his sentiments are widely shared by musicians and concertgoers—Draiblate would like to see better acoustics at Maryland Hall or a new concert hall. “We need a venue with acoustics benefiting the stature and artistry of the ASO. It would transform the orchestra.” Many things have changed in 50 years. Unlike the ASO’s early days, there are five subscription concerts in the 2013–14 season running from late September to May. Flex Pass subscriptions for three- and four-concert packages and single tickets are available. In addition, ASO offers the ever-popular, evergreen Holiday Pops concert (December 20th); a family concert, “The Lost Elephant,” February 8, 2014; and the free Labor Day weekend concert at Quiet Waters Park, a tradition drawing picnic-toting locals, usually with kids and dogs in tow. “There is such a difference between the pops concerts and the classical,” violinist Herman says. “We do short pieces for the pops—novelties like LeRoy Anderson [e.g. , Sleigh Ride, The Syncopated Clock ], movie themes—and even, Concerto For Cellphone.

And what of ASO’s future?

Maestro Novo says, “There is still room for growth, improvement, and new projects that we can embark on. More educational activities, like outreach to schools, the elderly, and communities that don’t get the opportunity” to hear live classical music. “We want to do more free concerts. That requires funding. But we’ve been lucky. A group of great people are working together to make it possible. We all want to keep growing and making ASO one of best regional orchestras.”

Harley Flack, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and himself a classically trained musician, concurs. “Our vision continues to be to build on the foundation we’ve established—wellness, education, community involvement. We want to be able to support our community and also expand the education and artistry into northern Anne Arundel County, and other areas that do not have access [to classical music].”

On a more personal note, Flack says, “I’m very passionate about our symphony. It further enriches my life and the life of my friends and the community in which I live and work. I love the way we are reaching out to an age- and ethnically diverse community. Our players are phenomenal, and there is a high level of giving. The level of performance of all the players has increased exponentially. And our incredible staff is bar none. They make me look good.”

For more information on the ASO, call 410-263-0907 or visit