A musical experience on both sides of the border

Principal conductor, Douglas Bianchi, conducts the orchestra during the national anthem Saturday, Feb 28, during a concert at McMorran Theatre. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

Principal conductor, Douglas Bianchi, conducts the orchestra during the national anthem Saturday, Feb 28, during a concert at McMorran Theatre. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

It’s an exposure to classical music with flair.

That’s how Bev O’Brien describes a performance by the International Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra is unique as it crosses the U.S.-Canadian border by performing in Port Huron and Sarnia on back-to-back nights.

Having been to nearly every concert since 2007, O’Brien doesn’t know why anyone would pass up the chance to listen to the affordable performances.

“They are missing something that is very beautiful,” the Richmond resident said. “I tell people if they like to feel music instead of just listening to it, bring a person to hear the ISO.”

The orchestra was formed in 1957 when the Port Huron String Ensemble and the Little Orchestra Society of Sarnia merged together.

Both communities realized they were too small to support their own orchestras, in turn creating a unique feel for a symphony.

Anne Brown, who serves as the orchestra’s executive director, said it is the international aspect of the orchestra that gives it its identity.

“To have the opportunity to hear work like that right here in our own community is great,” she said. “You don’t have to go to Detroit, you don’t have to go to Toronto, and you don’t have to pay $100 a ticket.”

More than 50 years later, their music can be heard from the halls of McMorran Theater in downtown Port Huron and the Imperial Theatre in Sarnia.

From a small origin of only two concerts a year, the orchestra’s activities have evolved to the present season, which includes 12 series performances, several youth education concerts and a number of community events.

Brown said the number of shows allows the orchestra to feature a wide array of talented musicians and guest artists in each event.

The same performances are repeated the night after on the other side of the border in order to retain guest artists.

“The majority are brought in from out of town,” Brown said. “So, to facilitate their schedules and from a cost basis it makes sense to keep their time here as short as possible.”

Orchestra pieces require a varying number of members from 45 to 65 musicians.

The symphony added singers in 1980s to include opera, Broadway and musical theatre to the orchestra’s schedule. Since then the “Symphony Singers” have given a new feel to the orchestra, taking part in several concerts each season.

If it’s more of a romanticized piece that is set on a large scale like the orchestra’s season finale, more musicians are required.

“My favorite part about all this is when you hear the orchestra and see the response of the audience to the music,” Brown said. “It is just tremendously gratifying. You recognize why all of those days of frustration and worry are all worthwhile.”

Richmond resident Laurel Emerson couldn’t agree more.

In fact, Emerson enjoys the orchestra so much, she sometimes ventures to Canada to watch some of their shows. She does this because of her younger roots.

“I used to listen to records when I was younger which had classical music,” Emerson said. “I like the fact that I can see the musicians play in person.”

Individuals on each side of the border work hard to maintain the continuation of this musical tradition. Music — whether it be hard rock or jazz — contributes greatly to the emotional and cultural well-being of their communities.

The success of the orchestra comes from thousands of hours by volunteer associations, musicians, singers and board members.

However, some positions are more important than others. An orchestra cannot operate without its leader.

As conductor, Douglas Bianchi came to the ISO with substantial experience as an associate music professor at Wayne State University.

“This is clearly unique,” Bianchi said. “Being Canadian and living in the states, I just feel like this is where I meant to be.”

With five years as the orchestra’s conductor under his belt, Bianchi knows what newcomers can expect when they attend. He also knows what they can get out of it.

“People think you are supposed to like everything you hear, but some of the greats have written some duds,” he said. “You may find your mind wandering and that’s OK. I think people have a misguided view of what happens in the orchestra. They just need to enjoy it for what it is — music.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 28, 2015)

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