When Harvey Felder lowers his baton at the end of Mahler’s “Fifth Symphony” on May 10, the silence will ring with another sound — that of one era ending and another beginning.
For 20 years, Felder, as music director, has led the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra through intense change, raising standards, instigating new community outreach programs such as youth and pops concerts, and turning the ensemble from a $300,000-per-year community group into a professional orchestra with a budget of nearly $1 million. He was also the organization’s first African American director.
But while the journey hasn’t been entirely smooth and musicians are looking forward to new director Sarah Ioannides’ arrival next fall, many in the community are sad to see Felder go.
“I really feel Harvey’s mission is complete,” concertmaster Svend Ronning said. “He’s done what he was charged to do — to turn an orchestra based on community into an orchestra based on excellence.”
“Harvey will live on as the big transition with the Tacoma Symphony … to turn it into a solid professional orchestra,” TSO board president Dick Ammerman said. “It was a big transition and somewhat traumatic, but he did it well.”
Felder was hired by the TSO board to do exactly as Ammerman said: to raise it from a community orchestra to professional level. In 1993 when Felder was auditioning, the Tacoma Symphony had been around for 47 years — and Edward Seferian had been directing it for 34 of them. Big and blustery, Seferian (who died in 2003) had primarily been a violinist, leading the Seattle Symphony and teaching at the University of Puget Sound. During his time, the orchestra — initially a university spinoff — grew in popularity, brought in international soloists and played extra school and summer concerts.
But while the musicians were paid, it wasn’t much, said Ronning, and not everyone was at professional level of musicianship — a fact illuminated by comparison with the then-newly-formed Northwest Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra directed by Christophe Chagnard and focused on high-quality, energetic chamber playing.
So when Felder came in, he began to raise that standard — and he ruffled a lot of feathers in the process.
“When Harvey came, he put the focus on excellence,” said Ronning, who joined the orchestra in 2000 at the end of the transition period. “That was a tense affair, and a lot of people fought him on that.”
To begin with, Felder changed the rehearsal schedule from a once-a-week community orchestra model, where players learn the music as they go, to the standard professional format of four rehearsals in the week before a concert. Such a schedule is necessary for a conductor who also works part of the year elsewhere — in Felder’s case, that has included conducting jobs in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Atlanta and West Virginia — and it requires musicians to practice and learn their parts before rehearsals begin.
“Musically it was very exciting,” said Liz Paterson, who has played second bassoon in the orchestra since 1989. “He really helped the orchestra grow.”
He also heard every musician in “playing interviews,” to find out just how well they played.
“I spent two and a half years assessing the orchestra, without any changes … trying to raise the quality with the personnel we had,” Felder said. “I was determined not to come in (like a) new broom that sweeps clean. … And we did raise the quality. But then it became apparent that we’d reached a ceiling, that we weren’t going to go any higher. That was when Phase Two had to begin: strategic changing of personnel.”
Felder began with the five principal string players — leaders of the first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses. He asked three to step down into the section — a difficult thing for any leader. Some quit instead. Felder then moved on to the principal wind, brass and percussion players, picking who fit his newer, higher standards and who didn’t.
“I needed midmanagement, people who were good leaders and admired and respected by their sections,” Felder recalled. “People who were … not hanging onto the past but embracing this new, more rigorous future for the Tacoma Symphony.”
“People had to shape up, or plain old ship out,” Ronning summed up.
Some shipped out, before or after they were asked to leave. Of the orchestra’s 78 members in 1993, just 26 remained five years later. Even allowing for retirements and one death, that’s a big change — and not everyone was happy about it.
“There were people whose skills weren’t up to it,” said Stuart Hake, who played cello in the orchestra from 1995 to 2000 and sat on the committee to hear from one violinist who fought back and demanded a second audition. “It was an icky thing to do.”
“There was a lot of unhappiness with the way things were handled,” recalled Bob Musser, now director of the Tacoma Concert Band, who retired by choice from his position as principal oboist in 1995. “I think it could have been done more tactfully.”
Felder admitted there was a lot of resentment from the orchestra, but said “that’s just part of the process of making a change.”
It’s a process that continues today, he added: “As the level rises, the people who made a very positive contribution 20 years ago — you have to look at their contribution today. It’s obviously not the most enjoyable part of the job, telling people their contribution wasn’t up to snuff. … But that was the charge, and I knew that coming in. I tried to do it with humanity and sensitivity, to be a gentleman through it all.”
After the personnel reshuffle, Felder started working with the orchestra on the things that Seferian had not.
“Ed was a wonderful musician, but Harvey was a good conductor,” bassoon player Paterson said. “Ed knew the broad sweep, how he wanted it to sound, but he wasn’t as skilled at getting that across.”
To get that sound, Felder focused on fundamentals: precise rhythm, ensemble awareness, intonation.
“It sounds basic but it wasn’t necessarily in place at the beginning,” Felder said.
“I’ve never been in an orchestra where I’ve been asked to play so precisely,” Ronning said. “Precision is Harvey’s thing. He gets critiqued for being so well-dressed and old school, but that’s just who he is. He’s a very together person. And at that time, that was what the orchestra needed.”
Ronning said it also was a smart tactic to deal with the extremely dry acoustics of the Pantages Theater, which hides nothing and doesn’t blend or enhance the natural sound.
As a result of the new clarity and tightness, the orchestra could play more difficult repertoire, and Felder brought in Romantic composers such as Sibelius and Brahms as well as more modern works by Hindemith, Shostakovich, even contemporary American composers, such as Roberto Sierra and Timothy Kramer. The season now includes at least three contemporary works, something Felder is proud of.
And while Felder didn’t change the basic model of four classics concerts and one holiday program per season, he did add concerts that broadened the orchestra’s audience. In 1997, he added a pops-style show, with a second the next year, bringing in performers such as Doc Severinsen and the Swingle Singers. In 2008, the orchestra began performing at the Puyallup Fair (now Washington State Fair). In 2012, he begin concerts specifically for children.
Experimenting with other venues, Felder took a small, chamber version of the orchestra to the Tacoma Art Museum from 2005-08 and then into the Rialto Theater. He’s collaborated with the Northwest Sinfonietta, and had the orchestra play for special events such as the Tall Ships festival.
Felder also began hiring more local soloists, beginning with pianist Duane Hulbert in 1997. This provided a savings that helped offset the new cost of paying orchestra members a union wage based on per-service professional rates, rather than a loosely defined stipend.
Felder’s own salary currently stands at $68,338 for his part-time contract. During his time, the orchestra’s income has risen from $300,000 to just less than $1 million, something the board and executive director agree is largely to Felder’s credit.
The symphony now has about 450 season subscribers, and average ticket sales of nearly 700 for its classics concerts.
“The product, after all, is the music we make,” board president Ammerman said. “If that’s not appealing, we won’t make money. Harvey came in and created an orchestra that sold those tickets.”
Yet while Felder might have increased the orchestra’s skill level, that’s not the only thing needed from a director, said Hulbert, a UPS faculty member who has performed as a soloist many times under both Felder and Seferian.
“Harvey raised the musical level of the orchestra to a high standard,” Hulbert said. “But Ed’s role was to become part of the community. Harvey just hasn’t been around. … It’s difficult, with a part-time position. Harvey was a better conductor, but Ed was the better person for our community.”
Still, one of the things Felder brought from the beginning was a passion for connecting the community with the music. Felder is well-regarded for his friendly, conversational speaking from the podium, explaining the music with live examples from the score in a way that non-experts can understand. That’s a common thing for conductors these days, but in the early 1990s it was new.
“I wanted the (concert experience) to be different from anywhere else,” Felder said. “I wanted to approach it like hosting a dinner party. People don’t really come for the food; they come to be greeted, for interaction, for engagement, for stories from the chef.”
It paid off. Felder’s poise, Ronning said, has been “a huge asset to the orchestra,” and Ammerman said the director’s popularity has made it easier to raise funds.
“I think Harvey has been a big reason why the TSO has been able to thrive all these years,” orchestra executive director Andy Buelow said.
But it’s not just educating adult audiences that Felder is passionate about. Felder also launched Simply Symphonic, the award-winning, annual educational concert series for fifth-graders that began in 1996. Unlike the school performances that happened under Seferian, Felder created Simply Symphonic as a complete educational package. It included a detailed book and CD material for teachers and — in the early days — three musician visits per class, plus the final concert.
The latest Simply Symphonic concerts happened two weeks ago in the Pantages, reaching thousands of students over four performances where Felder told stories and offered demonstrations and explanations.
“Simply Symphonic has been a wonderful thing,” said Paterson, who has also served on the orchestra’s educational committee. “It’s not just exposure. … He really wants to teach something. It was incredible.”
For local teachers, it has meant that students get in-depth learning and actually hear a symphony live.
“It’s the best field trip ever,” said Nadia Coughran, who has taken the fifth-graders at Manitou Park Elementary to Simply Symphonic for 14 years. “Firstly, it’s free. And Harvey Felder turns it into a lesson on counting, on language. … The kids absolutely love it. For many of them, this is the first and possibly the last time they ever experience listening to a full symphony. They’re in awe. That’s why this program is so essential.”
“I love how it makes the symphony an accessible experience,” said Point Defiance Elementary music teacher Stephanie Menafee, who has taken students for 12 years and makes the handout materials part of her curriculum for weeks beforehand. “Harvey talks to the students, respects them, brings it to their level. His passion for it really comes through. … He absolutely gets the kids involved. The next conductor has some big shoes to fill.”
That love and appreciation is reciprocated. “Of everything I’ve done here, I’m most proud of Simply Symphonic,” Felder said.
After 20 years with an orchestra — longer than the average, according to the League of American Orchestras — you’d expect there to be mixed feelings as Felder leaves to focus on other work, including directing orchestral studies at the University of Connecticut. Some musicians, while appreciating his achievement, are keen to work with a new director. Others mention Felder’s somewhat intimidating rehearsal style, or tensions with the five executive directors who have passed through during his tenure.
Said John Guadnola, who served on the TSO board for 21 years until 2011, “There have been tensions, especially with a run of executive directors who didn’t work with Harvey as well as they might.”
But some folks will just plain miss him.
“He’s a very intense person,” said Ronning. “He expects really high standards from his orchestra and himself. When things are not spot-on in rehearsal, he’s not happy — that frightens people. It frightens me sometimes. But I’ve worked with conductors who are free and easy in rehearsal, then sweat bullets in the performance — and we saw some of that in the (new director) audition process. Harvey never cracks in concert. He’s like a rock. Whatever nerves he has come out in rehearsal, and I’d rather have that.”
Still, there seems to be a consensus that it’s time for a change.
“For the last seven or eight years, there’s been a feeling that, OK, we’re a really good orchestra, so now what?” Ronning said. “I’m looking forward to the next stage.”
“He’s really helped the orchestra grow,” said Paterson, but added that when a new conductor comes, “it’s really refreshing. You’re on your toes, there’s more immediate communication. … Harvey is a very interior person.”
“I’m going to miss him,” said Buelow, who has known Felder since his early days in Milwaukee and who came to the TSO on Felder’s suggestion. “I regard him as a good friend, and someone who has a lot of integrity. He has given so many years of his life to building what we have here. He really believes in it.”
Said cellist Margaret Thorndill, “I feel like he’s very proud of us, and we’re proud of him. He connects with people in the audience — they feel like they know him. I don’t think he recognizes that Tacoma has embraced him.”
“He did everything we asked of him,” Guadnola said. “He established for the board, orchestra and community a bar that had never been there before, of what a professional orchestra should be.”
And Felder himself?
“I will miss Tacoma, and the patrons, and the people who’ve supported the orchestra over the years, and the orchestra members,” said Felder, in his quiet, considered voice. “It’ll be a major transition.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
Harvey Felder will lead his last concert as music director of the Tacoma Symphony in two weeks, conducting Mahler’s monumental Fifth Symphony, as well as “A Joyous Overture” by American composer Roberto Sierra and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Andrew Armstrong.
While Felder says that “whenever you play Mahler it’s a special occasion, because his music means so much to orchestras and conductors,” this particular Mahler is even more fitting for this occasion.
“This symphony is a journey,” Felder said, “through struggle, love, hope and finally triumph. It’s a wonderful narrative and I wanted to have that at my last concert as a representation of what we’ve gone through as an orchestra: struggle, sometimes loss and grief, but coming out in the end with a fine, respected orchestra. It was a marvelous journey, fraught with ups and downs to be sure, but ultimately triumphant.”
THE FELDER YEARS IN TACOMA
- September 1994: Replaces Edward Seferian as music director of Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.
- 1996: First pops concert.
- 1996: First personnel reshuffle, with viola, bass, associate concertmaster and second violin principals asked to leave or step down.
- 1997: Simply Symphonic youth program begins.
- 1997: Starts hiring local soloists, beginning with Duane Hulbert, piano.
- 1998: Longtime concertmaster Ann Tremaine retires.
- 2000: Sven Ronning becomes concertmaster.
- 2001-02: Budget hits $1 million.
- 2005-2007: Behind the Stands series starts at Tacoma Art Museum.
- 2008: Orchestra begins concerts at Puyallup Fair.
- 2008: Rialto concerts begin.
- 2009-10: Conductor collaboration with Northwest Sinfonietta.
- 2012: Annual master classes with Tacoma Youth Symphony begin.
- 2012: Family concerts begin.
- 2012-13: New director search.
- June 2014: To step down. Sarah Ioannides will become music director.
10. He loves golf, playing mostly at the North Shore course — though he has no handicap. Says symphony board president Dick Ammerman: “Harvey once confided to me that he loves playing golf because it’s one of the few times he doesn’t have music going all the time in his head. It’s a way for him to cleanse, to relax a bit.”
9. He loves walking for exercise. His favorite park? “Point Defiance, although I live in the Browns Point area so I often go down to the lighthouse there. And I love the Weyerhaeuser bonsai gardens.”
8. He loves gardens, but doesn’t garden himself. “Spending half my life in one place and half in another, it just didn’t work. I tried to keep plants and arrange for someone to water them, but then they leaked onto my piano.”
7. His other exercise is the Nordic track machine. He used to ski on snow but hasn’t in a while.
6. His favorite food is fish. “I love restaurants, especially Thai food, and I love fish prepared beautifully. And a great salad.”
5. His favorite subject (other than music) is politics. “I love looking at different political perspectives of the media, hearing them all talk about the same subject but you wouldn’t know it was the same from hearing them. It’s fascinating.”
4. Home improvement is also one of his hobbies. He especially enjoys working on the house he just bought in Connecticut, which needs some TLC. “I enjoy that kind of thing — painting, scraping, hammering.”
3. He plays the piano, though he started musical life as a French horn player. “I try to practice every day. (Renowned cellist and conductor) Pablo Casals always said he would play Bach first thing in the morning, and I try to do the same thing, along with my Hanon and Czerny finger exercises. It’s so important for a conductor to keep connected with the act of physically making music, making sound.”
2. Right now he’s reading “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell. “I love his writing, it’s very insightful and he crafts his words well. I’m also reading a book about the brain and what we’re discovering about it still.”
1. Teaching is his great love. “I love being able to share my experience,” Felder says.