Larsen marks 25 years with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra
By Dr. Rob Tomaro
The symphony orchestra in America is in transition. Orchestras are searching for relevance in the changing landscape of popular culture, and fighting for each entertainment dollar that the American family spends. Executive Directors, administrators, and yes, conductors, come and go, from the community level to the triple-A level, as everyone searches for the combination of elements that will spell success. It is with this in mind that we find ourselves reflecting upon the 25th anniversary of Maestro Steven Larsen’s tenure with our Rockford Symphony Orchestra.
When he took over in the early ‘90s, it was in trouble. There was dissension in the ranks regarding the leadership of the outgoing conductor. Season subscription memberships were down, as was the “buzz” about the orchestra in the community.
“There was talk of whether Rockford could support a professional orchestra or whether they should just shut it down. When I took over, the annual budget was about $250,000 a year. By 1995, we had brought it up to $500,000. Now it’s something like $1,200,000.”
The numbers, impressive as they are by themselves, are even more remarkable considering they represent a reversal in a trend of shrinking budgets and donor support for the arts. They signify a stunning turnaround from both a cultural and fiscal point of view, which can be attributed to Maestro Larsen’s skill as the steward of the organization, artistically and administratively.
Though, when asked to what he attributes his success, he doesn’t cite his artistic gifts or business acumen; he just says it’s a matter of, “Treating people with courtesy.”
“When I took over, the previous director had fired several members and wanted to fire more. I found though, early on, that players who couldn’t keep up with the higher standard to which the orchestra was rising simply dropped out, so there was no need for that.”
This doesn’t sound like the classic model of the symphony conductor as imperious despot. This bespeaks someone with an understanding of the way people function in arts organizations, if treated with respect.
When asked how his approach to conducting has changed over the years, he says: “I try to approach all repertoire, even standard repertoire, with an inquisitive mind. I will be conducting the Brahms Symphony No. 4 this fall, a piece I’ve done many times. But, I’ve ordered a brand new score and am not looking at my markings from past performances. I’m not relying on the past. I know the notes. I know the history of the piece. I know Brahms”.
On reflecting on his longevity, Larsen adds, with a chuckle, “I always thought of Brahms as an old man. Now I am older than he was when he wrote it.”
And so a picture forms of who he is and what he has done, which may be factored in with his talent as can be illustrated by something that occurred when he was 19.
Singing in the chorus of the Chicago Symphony at Sir George Solti’s premiere concert as Music Director, in which he had programmed the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Larsen learned a valuable lesson that would stick for the rest of his prodigious career.
The chorus was being prepared for him by Margaret Hillis, the pre-eminent figure in choral conducting in America at that time.
“When Miss Hillis conducted the choral finale in rehearsal, I saw there was a discrepancy between the rhythm she was teaching us and Beethoven’s printed rhythm in the score,” says Larsen.
“She was wrong, and nobody seemed to notice. Then, when Maestro Solti took over, he got to the end and also conducted the wrong rhythm. During a break, I approached Maestra Hillis and pointed it out. Her eyes flew open. She immediately went to Maestro Solti and showed it to him in the score and I could see his eyes fly open and he started hitting his head with the palm of his hand.
“When the rehearsal began again, the first thing Maestro said to the chorus and the orchestra was: ‘We have been making a mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake!’ Then, he made the correction.”
I cannot come up with another 19-year-old kid who would have the temerity to challenge not one but two classical music icons. But he was right.
Congratulations, Maestro. Here’s to the next 25 years.