The 60s. Hearing that phrase immediately conjures up images. You see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, startling coverage of the Vietnam War, Volkswagen bugs with gigantic daisy stickers on their hood and Twiggy-thin models in mini-dresses and go-go boots.
Or maybe you imagine somber-looking soldiers in Civil War uniforms, stately portraits of Abraham Lincoln, or a faded photograph of the Golden Spike that signified the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad.
In both decades – the 1860s and the 1960s – Thomas L. Stephens, Managing Director of the Garden State Philharmonic, points out, there are defining characteristics.
“Each century has its 60s,” Stephens said. “It was a time of change and transformation, and you find that excitement and passion reflected in the music.”
That brings us to “The 60s,” the Garden State Philharmonic 60th Anniversary Season kick-off concert, on Saturday, August 22 at 7:30 p.m.
A quick conversation with Artistic Director and Conductor Anthony LaGruth provided a preview of some works to be featured in the concert, including “Hungarian March” by Hector Berlioz, Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” and “Hungarian Rhapsody” by Franz Liszt.
Truly, cliché or not, there is something in this concert for almost everyone, a concept that carries over into the programming throughout the 60th season.
And this speaks to me, because I have always thought of music as less of a particular time and more part of a continuum.
However, Stephens said, as society has developed and brought along new ways of creating and presenting music, some of the original forms have been taken for granted. And, he speculates, this is sometimes the case with classical music.
“What people tend to forget,” Stephens pointed out, “is that a lot of modern music exists because it draws on classical music.”
And while presenting this music is at the heart of the orchestra’s mission, Stephens said there is much more to it than that.
“We want to establish a growing understanding of classical music and help the audience recognize the significance of preserving this great art form.”
Stephens went on to explain that classical music can often be an effective method of communication.
“Full instrumental compositions deliver a clear message,” he said. “When you hear pieces like that, you make a connection between the orchestra’s voice and yours.”
Identifying the audience is also a critical component. “We started to realize the diversity in the population we serve in Ocean County,” he said. A high percentage is either children, elementary school age through 18 years old, or people age 60 and over.
“Both groups are equally important,” he said. “The upcoming generation still relies on their parents to introduce them to culture, and older citizens are challenged by living on a fixed income and yet not wanting to abandon their pleasures and passions.”
The Garden State Philharmonic takes their role in serving their audience and the community quite seriously.
“We recognize that we have a responsibility to be both artists and arts educators,” Stephens said, “and to use what we do to make this musical medium a part of the current social consciousness.”
Two aspects of the organization play a huge part in fulfilling this goal. One is the fact that the Artistic Director and Conductor, Anthony LaGruth, has held that position for 15 years.
“This provides a solid core and a strong sense of continuity,” Stephens said, “and is a source of great pride for us.”
And LaGruth is more than just a man with a baton. “The conductor speaks before every performance,” Stephens said. “Many people come for that.”
Another key element is Kenneth Malagiere, President of the orchestra’s Board of Directors. “He is the youngest Board President I’ve ever worked under,” Stephens said, “but he is a dedicated and connected member of the community, with family and business roots here.”
“Ken is an inspiration,” Stephens said. “He is always willing to look beyond what’s been done before and embrace new ideas.”
Partnerships with other organizations are another way that the GSP responds to the community and draws connections with other forms of music.
There is “Operation Opera!” on Saturday, December 12, which will feature a new work by acclaimed baritone Adelmo Guidarelli, And, Stephens said, will hopefully go a long way toward dispelling some well-worn misconceptions about opera.
“The truth is that opera is rooted in humor. It’s just music with an elevated theatrical element,” he said. “We want to help the audience ‘get’ that.”
On Saturday, March 12, the orchestra will “stretch the envelope a little further” with “Muse of Fire,” a one-man play by David Katz that presents a portrait of a man who shaped a generation of conductors, and that demonstrates the lengths to which a mentor might go to bring along an apprentice.
And the final concert in the 60th Anniversary Series will “Beethoven’s Ninth!” on Sunday, May 22. The performance will be held at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Tom’s River. The orchestra will be joined by a community chorus, as well as adult and children’s choirs. “The church is a beautiful modern building,” Stephens said, “and the acoustics are unmatched.”
“This is such a dynamic piece,” Stephens said. “It is about unbounded human potential, which is at the heart of the Philharmonic’s history and philosophy.”
The Philharmonic has come a long way in its 60 years, and this monumental anniversary is certainly cause for celebration. But Stephens points out that the orchestra has many ongoing objectives that operate independent of an anniversary year.
Civic partnerships are an important part of the success and reach of the orchestra. GSP has been a partner with Ocean County College in Toms River for nearly 20 years. Since the 2005-2006 season, it has been Orchestra-in-Residence there and most orchestra performances are held in OCC’s Jay & Linda Grunin Center for the Arts.
New this season is a collaboration with the Ocean County Library called “Music in the Mind.” This series will feature Maestro LaGruth and scholars from the tri-state area discussing topics that touch on the role of classical music in history, society and life. And these events will be free to the public.
Each season, the Philharmonic also pairs with a local charity, and donates a portion of its proceeds to the group. The theme this year is “feeding the hungry,” and money from the October, December and May concerts will support either food banks or meals-on-wheels programs.
After my conversation with Stephens and my own research, what stands out for me is the resilient bond between a cultural organization and a community that was forged at the start and continues today.
The Garden State Philharmonic had its beginnings as the Garden State Philharmonic Symphony Society in Lakewood NJ in 1955—a community orchestra, conceived to address a need identified by a group of residents that included Leonard “Bud” Lomell, a highly-decorated World War II veteran and well-respected attorney, together with Morris Adler, Harry Duckworth, Ed Feiner, and Jack Fellows.
The group determined that people in that area of the Jersey Shore had been relying heavily on long distance travel to find culture.
“They felt like something was missing,” said Stephens. “And they realized that there was so much robust talent so much closer to home.”
“Once the idea took hold,” Stephens said, “ it just started to snowball.”
Within a year, the GSP website states, there was an orchestra, a conductor, a regular schedule and a bank debt guaranteed by members of the Board of Directors.
I told Stephens that – much more often than not – I find fascinating back stories when I delve into the history of cultural organizations throughout the State.
“It’s true,” Stephens said, “that there are plenty of these heartwarming tales that point to solid relationships between the arts and the community.
“These stories make New Jersey what it is.”