Webster’s Dictionary defines passion as “a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.” And passion is the word that came immediately to mind after I recently talked with Matthew Oberstein, Music Director and Conductor for the Philharmonic of Southern New Jersey.
It was a great conversation – as interviews with people in the arts tend to be – and I enjoyed learning about the Philharmonic, an 80-piece all-volunteer orchestra based in Moorestown, NJ.
But what came through most clearly is Oberstein’s passion for the orchestra he has led for the past five years.
“When I first heard them play,” he told me, “I said to myself – ‘this is not your everyday community orchestra.’
“One of the main reasons the orchestra is so good is that the players are here because they want to be,” he said. “They believe this is worth their time.”
Oberstein believes it is worth his time as well, routinely making the two-hour each way trip for rehearsals and performances from his home and workplace in New York.
Cellist Kathi Stokes has been with the orchestra since its start and played under the former music director, conductor and Philharmonic founder, Philip Travaline.
“The orchestra had always been great,” she said. “It was like a literal ‘passing of the torch’ when Matthew came on.”
Naturally, there was a period of adjustment.
“He brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” she said about Oberstein, “and is always willing to try something new. I don’t think he sees anything as an obstacle.”
And while he is – by both Stokes’ and Oberstein’s own accounts – a task-master, that is not an issue either.
“He does work us hard,” Stokes said, “but the result is worth it.”
On the performing side, Oberstein is quick to note that there is strong local competition among arts presenters.
“People have many choices,” he said. “There’s an abundance of options in the greater Philadelphia area for lovers of classical music. There’s Opera Philadelphia, Symphony in C, the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name just a few.”
He sincerely believes, however, that the Philharmonic is capable of holding its own among them.
“I think people are surprised when they find out we are not a professional orchestra,” he said.
As a conductor and music director, Oberstein wears two distinct, but interrelated, hats.
“A conductor’s job is to set the tempo, provide cues to the musicians, and develop the overall interpretation of a piece,” he explained. “But, the biggest part is communicating that interpretation to the players and to the audience.”
To do that, a conductor must know the music and the musicians, and also the people to whom they will be playing.
And, as music director, Oberstein is the one who sets the theme and programs for each performance season.
“When choosing works, I want to be sure each player has a substantial part, and that the music is technically challenging, but not too hard,” he said. “It’s important that the musicians feel they are able to shine.”
Of course, Oberstein wants the programs to be interesting and enjoyable for the audience.
“Last year was our 25th anniversary, and we pulled out all the stops,” he told me. “This season, it’s a little like, ‘thanks for coming to the party, now let’s do something different.’”
For the 2016-17 season, Oberstein chose a travel theme, taking the audience on a virtual vacation to Europe, with a stop at home for the holidays.
The opener, “Roman Holiday,” is this Sunday, October 16 at 3:00 p.m. and includes pieces like “Roman Carnival Overture” by Berlioz, and Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” as well as works by Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Mascagni. The popular pre-concert talk begins at 2:00 p.m.
Next up, on December 11, is “A Joyful Noise,” featuring the lead singer for Pink Martini, Storm Large (Note to self: Get tickets now!), followed by a “Cruising the Danube” on February 26, with guest cellist Joshua Roman. Wrapping up the season on April 23 will be “American in Paris.”
During our conversation, Oberstein provided a glimpse of how a program comes together, saying it can take a couple of years of “ruminating” and that he often “puts it away and then goes back to it later.”
He used the “American in Paris” concert as an example of something that started one way and ended up being something else. “We had announced the season,” he said, “and then I came upon a piece by this young composer, Michael Gilbertson.”
So, Oberstein swapped out another work for Gilbertson’s “Splendid Season,” changed the program title and reworked the overall theme so that the concert will now focus on New York in the 20s. “It will be a celebration of Cole Porter and George Gershwin.”
Programming is tricky business, though. A music director may select works that appeal to him, but there’s no guarantee that the audience, or even the musicians, agree. And finding the right combination of familiar and fresh can be difficult.
This is one reason why Oberstein believes in the importance of education – both for young people and adults.
“Our outreach programs go back to the orchestra’s beginnings,” said Oberstein. “We have string quartets that go to schools and do programs geared to students’ ages and levels of musical experience. And we also incorporate student and adult choruses into our performances.”
One example is the popular Holiday Concert, which always includes at least one elementary chorus. And there are larger-scale productions – like a commissioned piece composed as a salute to veterans or the lush Carl Orff composition “Carmina Burana” – that utilized multiple choruses.
“It’s essential for us to continue to strengthen our community connections.”
Another way that the Philharmonic reaches beyond a simple performance model is with the pre-concert talks that happen prior to each performance. The first one was arranged to showcase a composer whose work was being played at that day’s concert.
“We planned to do it in the library (of Eastern High School) and had set up 75 chairs,” he said, “and were very surprised when more than 200 people showed up.”
Currently, the talks are held in the auditorium where the Philharmonic plays, and generally draw as many as 300 people.
Oberstein also notes that concert attendance has remained consistently strong, even at a time when some cultural organizations are struggling.
The Philharmonic has a subscriber base of 700, and sells another few hundred individual tickets for any given show. For this success, Oberstein freely credits Bob Stokes (cellist Kathi’s husband) and his tireless efforts as Audience Services Manager – and basic Bob-of-all-trades – since the early days.
“We are proud that nearly 90 percent of our subscribers renew year after year,” said Bob Stokes, “and that we have such great partnerships with the senior citizen communities in the area.
“At the same time, our audience continues to grow and evolve,” he said. “These are sophisticated and quite knowledgeable people, and they love classical music.”
And, in a mutual-admiration gesture, Bob Stokes recognized Oberstein’s contributions.
“Matthew has done a tremendous amount to broaden the appeal,” he said. “He has set high standards for quality, and the orchestra has responded.”
The Philharmonic of Southern New Jersey presents “Roman Holiday” on Sunday, October 16 at 3 pm, with a pre-concert talk at 2pm. For tickets and more information, visit the Philharmonic’s site at http://www.psnj.org/.