Symphony puts twist on tradition

Published 10:53 am Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Under the direction of Robin Fountain, the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra strives to create unique, one-of-a-kind performances. Submitted photo

The Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra (SMSO) will channel the luck of the Irish this St. Patrick’s Day, presenting Celtic Celebration on the Lake Michigan College campus Mendel Mainstage. Joining the symphony will be guest harpist Deborah Henson-Conant and the Lake Michigan Youth Orchestra.

Henson-Conant updates the bardic tradition with an electric harp, while relating stories and playing classic Celtic songs, like the familiar Danny Boy.

The Lake Michigan Youth Orchestra will the play Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave side-by-side with the SMSO.

The concert promises the innovation, and one-of-a-kind performance music director and conductor Robin Fountain strives for in SMSO performances.

“My vision is that I will have sixty people making large scale chamber music,” said Fountain, enthusiastically.

What he’s looking for is a dynamic interaction between the musicians, and with the conductor.

“If everyone is listening to one another, playing to one another, and responding to one another, sparring all the time, then you have a completely different animal from the model where everyone is just doing what the director says,” he explained. “What you’re doing is fusing all this expression and talent into a single conception. It’s something that happens at that moment. That’s what makes it special. You can then create concerts which are not routine. They’re unique, and one-time only.”

Fountain believes these unique, one-time happenings are what make people want to attend the performances.

“People are desperate for things that are authentic,” he said, pointing out how “virtual, or canned” entertainment experiences have become.  “They’re not real, and not immediate and not creative.”

When it was formed over 50 years ago, the Twin City Symphonic Society was comprised mostly of local amateurs, and presented four concerts each season.

Today, as the Southwest Michigan Orchestra (SMSO), it is a fully professional orchestra offering many more performances. It has also expanded its scope to support and promote music education. Under the direction of Fountain, the symphony has blossomed into a world-class musical group.

As the SMSO music director, Fountain works with a body of musicians who are largely freelance. Most of them play for other groups, even other symphonies. At the same time, Fountain wants the SMSO to have its own identity.

“I’ve been absolutely delighted at the extent to which the individual members have been willing to really give everything they’ve got,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort to do that. It’s so much easier just to sit and play the notes. It’s a really wonderful, wonderful thing when you get sixty people, all of whom have a very substantial degree of skill and training, and then you get them to commit to something artistically. It’s just exhilarating.”

When it comes to conducting, Fountain takes the job of conducting as seriously as he does the job of music director.

According to him, “all that waving of the arms” is important to the final outcome. From his podium, the conductor conveys all sorts of cues and information, including when to play, how loud to play, and with what intensity to play. Through arm movement, body language, and facial expression, the conductor also sets the emotional tone.

“Conductors don’t make the music, but conductors create the circumstances in which great music can be made,” he said.

The symphony presents eight concerts each season at the Mendel Center, several mini-concerts at various venues in their Around Town series, and a summer concert series, using the sunsets, lake, and lighthouse as their backdrop in the Shadowland Pavilion at Silver Beach in St. Joseph and in the Jean Klock Park Pavilion in Benton Harbor.

The Symphony has  concerts left in its 2011-2012 season:  “Celtic Celebration” on Saturday, March 17, and “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” on Friday May 25.

For information on tickets, or other SMSO activities call the SMSO office at (269) 982-4030, or visit the SMSO web site: