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Orchestras and Chamber Groups Proliferate in Vermont's Classical Music Scene

State of the Arts


Daniel Bruce
  • Daniel Bruce

Last fall, Burlington got yet another orchestra. Whah? as my son used to say before he mastered the “t.”

It’s called the Burlington Civic Symphony Orchestra, and it’s a community orchestra cofounded by conductor Daniel Bruce and French hornists Helen Read and Marti Walker. Bruce already heads Burlington’s other community orchestra, the Amateur Musicians Orchestra. Did the Queen City really need another one? With, it must be said, another unarresting name?

Of course, says Bruce, 46, whose day job is teaching band and choral music at People’s Academy in Morrisville. The AMO is open to players of every ability and age, he explains, but Burlington lacked an auditioned community orchestra similar to the Vermont Philharmonic in Montpelier, where he lives. The BCSO, Bruce says, aims for “as high a performance quality as possible without being professional.”

Bruce launched the orchestra after he was invited to conduct the Green Mountain Mahler Festival in 2010 — another community effort, but one that’s focused on doing orchestral readings and, lately, the occasional fundraiser. He, Read and Walker wanted to form a group to play “more challenging literature” and “noticed that [the Festival] had this core of really good players who were always there. They do everything — the Lyric Theatre orchestra, the Vermont Philharmonic, the Champlain Philharmonic. And we had access to their email addresses,” he adds.

The BCSO now has 65 to 70 members on its roster, says Bruce, and will perform two to three times a year. Its first concert, last November, featured Brahms’ First Symphony. The next — Read’s idea — is a chance for children to hear Prokofiev’s beloved Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Burlington pediatrician-celeb Lewis First; and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. For its spring concert, the group will tackle Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

The BCSO joins a surprising number of community orchestras around the state, including the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra Society, the Champlain Philharmonic in Vergennes and the Windham Orchestra down south.

It’s among a number of new gigs that make for remarkably good times for classical music fans in Vermont. In the last two years alone, professional musicians — some from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the state’s only professional orchestra — have launched three new, innovative chamber groups.

Burlington Ensemble, the group that plays only charity concerts and requests a mere $5 minimum donation, recently began an open evening rehearsal-and-café series at the All Souls Interfaith Gathering in Shelburne, called Music 101. Scrag Mountain Music hosted a farm dinner with its Irene-recovery benefit concert at the Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield. And the 802 Quartet, whose stated mission is “to create a new tradition of interaction and audience involvement,” performed at Winooski’s Block Gallery while audience members sipped wine and beer.

The creation of the BCSO adds another group to the mix. Though its members are unpaid, there’s less of a divide between professional and community groups than one might think. Many of the BCSO’s members take professional gigs, according to Bruce, and one is even a former horn player with the New York Philharmonic. In fact, Bruce, a Northfield native who earned a master’s in conducting from Northwestern University, hopes the BCSO might one day become “a kind of training ground” for the VSO — much as the Chicago Civic Symphony Orchestra serves that purpose for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Nadine Carpenter, a 71-year-old oboist in the BCSO, teaches her instrument at her home studio and at the University of Vermont as an affiliate artist. She also performs with two professional groups in the area, Vermont Symphonic Winds and the Burlington Chamber Orchestra.

Carpenter is “very proud” to have the BCSO, and says she appreciates the gap it fills. While the smaller BCO mostly plays earlier repertoire, such as Handel, Mozart and Haydn, the BCSO focuses on works from the Romantic period and later. “It’s a very nice opportunity for me to play Brahms and some of the larger symphonic works,” she says. “Even though we seem to have so many different orchestras, each one has a purpose.

“The problem here is that there are so many things going on, it’s a question of having to make choices — for audiences and for musicians!” Carpenter adds, mentioning a schedule conflict with the Burlington Ensemble for one performance. “But it’s a nice dilemma to be in.”

Concert for Kids, Burlington Civic Symphony Orchestra with special guest narrator Lewis First. Sunday, February 12, at 2 p.m. at the University of Vermont Recital Hall in Burlington.

Musicians interested in auditioning for the BCSO should contact conductor Daniel Bruce through the website, bcsovt.org.