Orchestra thrives as many fail SSO's amateurs play only for love of music


While many arts organizations founder in a sea of red ink an apathy, the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra is sailing ahead into its 16th season.

Billing itself as "Harford County's premier cultural organization," the orchestra is buoyed by strong leadership, a dedicated following and a new performing space.

Director Sheldon Bair is tuning up the ensemble, more than 70 members this year, for its first performance of the season Oct. 24 at the John Carroll School in Bel Air.

Described by orchestra manager Kathy Scarborough as "an intimate hall with excellent acoustics," the 600-seat auditorium on Churchville Road will be the site of all four concerts in the SSO series.

The season opener, "American Salute," will showcase American composers and Russian emigre David Finko. The dynamic pianist was so well received in past SSO appearances that Mr. Bair invited him back.

Featured artists are often friends of Mr. Bair, who belongs to an international community of musicians.

"I overheard duo-pianists Dallas Weekley and Nancy Arganbright discussing the finer points of Schubert at a bed-and-breakfast one morning in London," Mr. Bair recalled, "and I struck up a conversation."

Now, they're regulars with the SSO and will be featured in the December holiday concert.

A serious musician with a sunny disposition, Mr. Bair founded the SSO in 1978 and has wielded the conductor's baton ever since.

He studied conducting with Leonid Grin, a student of the late Leonard Bernstein, and now teaches at three area schools in addition to his symphony duties.

"A fellow conductor once told me it doesn't matter where you're making music, as long as you're making music," he said.

The bearded, bespectacled Mr. Bair looks stern, almost fierce on the podium. Yet his harshest admonition during a recent rehearsal was, "Kindly don't play on rests!"

,.5l Mr. Bair's patience and skill inspire hard work and loyalty from his orchestra members, who play with varying degrees of expertise.

The harmony and affection within this diverse group is remarkable.

In rehearsal, a tuba player in a suit warmed up beside a teen-ager sporting a Metallica T-shirt.

In the string section, a gray-haired woman adjusted her bifocals while a young, barefoot cellist tapped her lacquered toes in rhythm.

The members of the Susquehanna Symphony are amateurs, playing without auditions or pay.

"If not for the Susquehanna, I wouldn't have the opportunity to play in an orchestra," said Carol Benck, who joined the orchestra in 1979. "I'm strictly amateur, but many in here could play professionally."

As manager of WHRF radio at Harford Community College, John Davlin has worked with Mr. Bair on classical programs at the station and concurs that "the community orchestra concept is great."

"It works on two levels -- providing high-quality classical music for countians and performance opportunities for musicians.

"I have nothing but the highest regard for Sheldon," he said. "It takes a special person to foster such dedication and excellence among the musicians."

Orchestra members are not only dedicated musicians but also enthusiastic ambassadors for the organization.

"Our objective this year is to fill every seat at every performance," said Tony Belcastro, second violinist and symphony president.

"We have a good following, but there are still plenty of people in the county who don't know about us."

Originally called the Harford Community Orchestra, the ensemble numbered about 50 and gave concerts in Havre de Grace.

In 1982 the name was changed to the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra to reflect its growing sphere of cultural influence.

It operates largely through grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Harford County Cultural Advisory Board. The $30,000 budget covers such expenses as printing and postage, sheet music and piano rental.

L Soloists are paid, and Mr. Bair receives a small honorarium.

With most other cultural organizations in the state, the SSO sustained a hefty cut in funding this year, but increasing ticket sales are expected to offset the loss.

Mr. Bair praises county residents as a musically intelligent audience. "I get lots of letters and comments from people. "One I hear a lot is, 'Why the devil did you play that piece?' "

But he is proud of the SSO's unusual repertoire, boasting that he specializes in "unjustly neglected works of both little-known and well-known composers."

One of those works is Beethoven's score to Goethe's drama, "Egmont," which will be sung by soprano Judith Pannill in the March concert.

Rounding out the season will be a May performance with the Edinburgh String Quartet from Scotland.

For information about season subscriptions, call 838-6465.

Individual concert tickets will also be available.

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