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Shepherdstown boosts music with enthusiasm Town of 1,300 residents boasts of orchestra founded in 1979


SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- As the final strains of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C faded and the near sellout crowd of 400 inside the Frank Creative Arts Center began a long and warm applause, Leo Driehuys gave his musicians an enthusiastic two thumbs up, his smile nearly 44 piano keys wide.

This was not simply a joyful end to the recent opening concert of the Millbrook Orchestra's 19th season. This was an affirmation of faith and all the proof Shepherdstown's 1,300 residents needed to continue boasting that theirs is the smallest town in the United States with a professional orchestra - never mind whether it's true.

The American Symphony Orchestra League in Washington knows of 1,800 orchestras in the country, almost two-thirds of them small community groups such as Millbrook.

But no matter. The artistic and financial success of opening night showed how a little perseverance and luck saved a beloved cultural institution and boosted the spirits of this town. Millbrook became the little orchestra that could, and Driehuys - rhymes with treehouse - a 65-year-old Dutchman, was its accidental conductor.

Named after local farm

The orchestra was founded in 1979 with 28 semi-professional musicians and named after a local farm.

Two years later the Millbrook moved into the Frank Center, on the campus of Shepherd College, a small state liberal arts school, where it grew from a local curiosity to a regional attraction, now with 33 regular players and occasional guest soloists.

"The orchestra was better than we thought, and that was surprising to us," said Guy Frank, the retired music teacher at the college for whom the building was named and one of the orchestra's founders. "We also found there was an initial enthusiasm on the part of the audience."

Shepherdstown has long been a regional arts center. Its 18th- and 19th-century buildings and country setting, across the Potomac from the Civil War battlefield of Antietam, are strong magnets for painters, sculptors and actors from the larger cultural markets of Washington and Baltimore, each a 90-minute drive away.

Even with nearby alternatives like the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in Hagerstown and a chamber orchestra in Winchester, Va., music lovers of the area still found their way to hear Millbrook play as many as six concerts a season.

Through 1991, the orchestra was led by another of its founders, Jerry Zimmerman, a music teacher at Shepherd College. Then after two seasons of guest conductors, the board of directors hired Shinik Hahm, a Korean who taught at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

It was sometime during Hahm's second season, 1994-1995, that Driehuys retired after 34 years of conducting, the last half of them as musical director and conductor of the Charlotte (N.C.) Symphony Orchestra. Driehuys is an oboist and pianist who made his conducting debut with the Netherlands Opera in 1960 and spent the next 17 years leading orchestras in the Netherlands, including the Dutch Radio Philharmonic. He also was a guest conductor and oboist for other European orchestras. In 1977, he was invited to Charlotte.

By 1994, Driehuys and his wife, Henny, a voice teacher and former opera singer, were eager to retire and move closer to their daughter, Nicolette, who lives in the Washington suburb of Herndon, Va. Nicolette's husband, Bob Oppelt, the principal bass player with the National Symphony Orchestra, suggested they explore Shepherdstown.

"I had never heard of Shepherdstown," Driehuys recalled, sitting in the living room of his ranch-style house just outside the center of town. "But once we got there, it won immediately. It had a very pleasant kind of atmosphere. We fell in love with the place."

Word travels quickly in small towns, and it was not long before local residents knew all about their new neighbor - even if he had not yet learned that his new home had an orchestra. Walking to the post office one day, he bumped into a Millbrook board member, who invited him to hear the orchestra, then meet with the board to make suggestions.

Surprised to learn of an orchestra in such a small place, Driehuys said he was honored to be asked. But his initial response was one of ambivalence.

"I just finished with one orchestra," he said, recalling his initial thoughts. "Now to be involved with another?"

He agreed to listen. And was surprised again: The board asked him to become the conductor. Compromising, he agreed to lead a 1995 Christmas concert.

Unknown to many people outside the orchestra at the time was the growing friction between Hahm and some of the musicians over policy matters and musical interpretation. Once the Christmas concert was over - it was well received - the board offered Driehuys a two-year contract. He accepted for one year. Hahm resigned.

'We couldn't raise money'

Flush with success and optimism, the orchestra staff planned four concerts for the 1996-1997 season, but a hidden problem forced administrators to cancel the season after two concerts. "We were in debt," said Katherine Edelen, the executive manager. "We adopted a larger program than we should have, and we couldn't raise money."

It is not uncommon. In 1996, orchestras in San Diego and Sacramento folded. Since 1986, major orchestras in six other cities, including Denver and New Orleans, shut down for brief periods because of financial strain.

But in a small town, the sting of failure touches the entire community. "I got mad as hell," Driehuys said. "I had made commitments, hired soloists, and my word was on the line. They had adopted a budget way over their head and had no fund raising."

With a promise to increase revenues through stronger fund raising, administrators convinced Driehuys to lead the orchestra for one more season of four concerts. "But if the season is canceled after two concerts," he told them, "I quit."

But, "I'm enjoying it," Driehuys said. "Here we have to do it with young talent, a lot of relatively unknowns. But maybe because of us, they will become a little more known."

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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