Playing for the Love of It
Apr 28, 2014 10:41AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
In our continuing series, Faces of the Arts, we visit with the Londontowne Symphony Orchestra, another key player in our area’s rich cultural landscape, and the personnel who make it hum.
Principal Cellist/Marketing Director
Buzz Stillinger, principal cellist, director of marketing, and a board member of the Londontowne Symphony Orchestra, was born into a musical family in Scarsdale, N.Y., where his mother was an opera singer, voice and piano teacher. One of four boys—“all musical,” he says―he would listen in on his mother’s string-quartet rehearsals. One day, “mesmerized by the sounds,” he asked his mother, “What is the big one?” And that is how, at the age of six, he discovered the cello and found his first music teacher―the ensemble’s cello player.
At 18, after six years studying with a cellist in the New York Philharmonic, he was offered scholarships by Juilliard and the Eastman School of Music. A well-rounded teen who also excelled in academics, presided over the student council, played sports, and released some records, he was in a quandary. “I didn’t want to rely on music to put food on the table,” he says. When he asked his mother’s opinion, she said, “If you have other interests, are not willing to give all to your music, you probably shouldn’t do it.”
So he turned down two of the top music schools in the country to study biochemistry at Cornell while his cello collected dust. Short a credit to graduate, he signed up for orchestra and also sang with “Cayuga’s Waiters,” a 12-man a cappella group, “second only to Yale’s Whiffenpoofs.” He went on to acquire an MBA in marketing and operations research and found his niche in corporate America with American and Northwest Airlines, and Sabre in Dallas.
While working and raising a family, he sang in church choirs, sometimes directing them. “But I wasn’t playing cello much,” he says. After retiring and moving in 1999 to Annapolis, which he describes as, “a medium-size college town with a temperate climate and cultural opportunities,” he met a neighbor who played the tuba with the Baltimore Philharmonia Orchestra (BPO). “They needed a cello player.” After several years commuting between Riva and Baltimore, and longing to play closer to home, he auditioned for the Anne Arundel Community College Symphony and Londontowne Symphony. He made both. Playing in three orchestras wore thin after a while. “There were times when I played six hours a day (three, practice; three, rehearsal).
He dropped BPO and, since he’s “back to two orchestras [LSO and AACC],” he says, “I am playing so much better than I did at 18. When I joined LSO, it was hardly known. I’d wonder if there were more people onstage than in the audience.” Confident that he could grow attendance, he began promoting LSO, parlaying his experience as publicity director for the Parole Rotary. Now he’s the orchestra’s marketing director.
“We are Anne Arundel County’s community orchestra. We aim to build an audience and make money to be able to have more concerts for paying clientele, not just for friends and family.” Currently, the concerts attract “more than 200” listeners. “My goal is 400.” Stillinger is intent on spreading the word in creative ways. One is to band the orchestra’s brass and strings ensembles with social events at local restaurants.
But LSO’s major mission is “to promote music to young people. I believe in the value music will bring to their lives.” (He also mentors student musicians at South River High School.) Last fall the annual Young Artist Competition yielded three high school student winners who are mentored by Conductor and Music Director Anna Binneweg. Last month at the April 6 family concert, “Puppets and Stars,” the nationally known Bob Brown Puppets performed, and each of the winning students (a pianist, violinist, and harpist) played a movement of the featured work, Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals.”
Principal Oboist/Master Reedmaker
Principal oboist for 4 years, Kerry Willingham found a new vocation when he retired from the United States Army Field Band in 2005. Now he has customers all over the world. “As an oboe player, you have to make your own [double] reeds; you cannot buy them. Store-bought are machine made,” he says, disdain thickening his Texas twang. “I have customers all over the world. It takes time and dedication “spread out over three to four days,” he says of the process. He fashions the reeds by hand “from fishing pole-type cane.” About 85 percent of my customers are amateur players, all over the country. They are so happy to contribute to their orchestras.”
Willingham finds the same spirit in the LSO. “The orchestra has a core of professional musicians, players from the Naval Academy Band, the Air Force and Marine bands, and retired military now working at the agency (CIA). Around here there are so many wonderful musicians who don’t want to commit full time. A couple of my friends are ‘monster players.’ They provide a great backbone. I’ve studied all this music since college at Indiana. But it’s new to some. When we get together to rehearse, at first it sounds ragged. As it goes on, it’s great hearing it come together. They get the eye of what it is. We play like a professional orchestra, but we also play for ourselves.”
In addition to a broad performing background, he also teaches music theory at AACC (and the occasional private student). Of LSO’s conductor, he says, “Anna is wonderful. Extremely talented. Being a good conductor has nothing to do with being male or female. I have worked under a lot of conductors. She is the best. She is dignified. And she’s efficient. Anna is very strict about practice. We don’t have many rehearsals. When the light bulb goes on … the musicians are proud of what they’ve done. We are so fortunate to have her.”
The LSO “is designed to be a community orchestra in the best sense. Sure, we’d love to have a big concert hall. But that’s not what we’re about. The LSO is a great avenue for people to have an outlet. The word ‘amateur’ has been maligned in our culture and speech. They do music for the love of it. It’s not just for the audience—it’s such a cathartic thing for the musicians.”
Pianist/Chairman of the Board
Bill Bloomquist of Riva first attended an LSO concert to hear a friend play. “I came to it from a performer’s standpoint.” He says he liked what he heard and got involved, helping behind the scenes. He solos once or twice a year, enjoying the involvement with the musical community, and also plays in and out of town. “It’s a way to give back; keep my feet in but not be dependent on it.”
On the board, “I add my experience to that of others who may not have musical experience. We’ve transitioned. The board used to be all musicians. Now it’s more diverse. We have talented high school students to community players to professionals. Because it’s community-based and not run by professionals, “you can feel more a part of the orchestra.” The caliber has improved greatly, he says, “primarily, due to our conductor. The first few years we had excellent conductors but always someone different. With Anna, we have more consistency across the seasons and years. A typical season is five concerts, plus four to five concerts each for the string quartet, wind ensemble, and brass ensemble who play for fundraisers, in retirement communities and such.
“We have a huge commitment to helping young musicians get experience with professional players and a conductor. We’re very family-centered. Every student—through college age―is free.” For the first time, this year’s competition was open to multiple instruments, Bloomquist says. And it’s easy for the community to get involved. There are opportunities “for volunteers to assist, not just as musicians but with box office and ticket sales, and marketing.”
Dr. Anna Binneweg picked up the baton as LSO Music Director/ Conductor in 2008. Her early love of music blossomed in her hometown of Tahoe City, California, nurtured by the high school band teachers. Binneweg rehearses the LSO during concert weeks (typically five rehearsals over a 10-day period) and holds a full-time position as Associate Professor and Music Director/Conductor of the AACC Symphony Orchestra at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold. In between, she crisscrosses the country to “fulfill additional artistic roles and responsibilities.”
The stunning blond maestro holds an undergrad degree in music from Cal Poly, a double master’s in conducting and music education from SMU, and a doctorate in orchestra conducting from Northwestern. She lives in Alexandria with her husband Igor Leschishin, principal oboist of the Washington National Opera, and their 3-year-old daughter, Sophia. “Serving as Music Director for two orchestras simultaneously has its challenges at times,” she admits. “But it is a normal part of life for conductors.”
Among her responsibilities is “creating each orchestra’s schedule” and doing her “best to schedule a well-paced concert season that enables … continued achievement and success through good programming and direct interaction with the greater Annapolis community.”
“The communities throughout Anne Arundel County are involved in a variety of ways that bring people together.” Binneweg knew from the start, she says, that she could nurture these relationships for “continued artistic growth and development.” Speaking to the musicians’ dedication and passion, and the satisfaction she derives from her association with them, she says, “Every member of the LSO performs because they want to make music and share it with others and that is enough for me.”
LSO’s final concert of the season, June 7, 7:30 p.m. at Indian Creek School, features works by Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Bruch, with a guest artist from the Washington National Opera. For more information visit www.lso-music.org.