A quarter century of classical brilliance

Crane School  of Music professor Kenneth B. Andrews has conducted the Orchestra of Northern New York for all of its 25 year history. Courtesy ONNY

Crane School
of Music professor Kenneth B. Andrews has conducted the Orchestra of Northern New York for all of its 25 year history. Courtesy ONNY

ONNY maintains vibrancy after 25 years of performances

Twenty-five years ago, Orchestra of Northern New York conductor Kenneth B. Andrews and a few fellow Crane School of Music faculty spent several nights until 4 a.m. drawing up a lists of musicians who might be interested in playing in a professional orchestra, driven by his three-pronged vision: creating a professional orchestra for the Northern New York public, providing opportunities for the professional players in the region so they didn’t have to travel such great distances for similar experience and giving young high-level musicians at Crane the chance to perform with a professional orchestra.

He then visited each and every one of the musicians’ houses, talking about what he wanted to create, before approaching SUNY Potsdam and Crane to find out if they would be willing to help sponsor and bring to fruition such a bold idea that many thought wouldn’t last more than a season.

What started “on a shoestring,” driven by Mr. Andrews’ singular vision and passion, has turned into a thriving cultural gem in the north country that has not only been able to provide the opportunities he originally envisioned, but, because of a wealth of volunteers and donors, stay viable at a time when many orchestras across the country are folding from financial pressures. The Syracuse Symphony and the Utica Symphony ceased operations in 2011.

“We have a few people that wear a lot of hats, and great volunteers and a great board — that’s the only reason that some orchestras are making it,” Mr. Andrews said in an interview last month.

Mr. Andrews, a professor at Crane since 1986 who was in May named a Distinguished Service Professor by the SUNY system, has conducted the orchestra, now in the midst of its 26th season entitled “Artistry and Passion,” since the beginning. But he attributes much of its continued vibrancy to its dedicated members, about 15 of whom have played with the group since the beginning. The majority of the other members have also been with the orchestra for five, 10, 15 and 20 years, he said.

“This orchestra is an expression of his heart and soul, and his blood, sweat and tears,” said Timothy L. Savage, president of ONNY’s board of directors, Crane School visiting jazz instructor and band director at Canton Central School District. “We feel most fortunate to have someone like Ken Andrews with his vision and sustained passion for what he’s done. We have musicians in the orchestra that travel from a long way away to play for this guy.”

Charter trumpet player and Crane professor James T. Madeja also credits much of the orchestra’s success to Mr. Andrews.

“I think if the music director did not have the passion and perseverance that Ken has shown, it would have been easy for the orchestra to fold over time,” he said. “Ken has the determination to make things happen even when the outlook isn’t so promising.”

Mr. Andrews said he feels “blessed” to be able to work with so many talented musicians, some of whom are Crane faculty members, but many of whom are professionals who journey from as far away as Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Rochester, Burlington, New York City, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Syracuse, Ithaca and Buffalo.

“My job is to put things together, but I feel very strongly that the conductor is no more important than any other person in the orchestra,” Mr. Andrews said. “The conductor has their ideas and has to bring their ideas to it, and has to meld everyone into one mindset, but the people who are really sweating are the people who play.”

Mr. Andrews originally considered a variety of titles for ONNY, but said he didn’t want to call it the orchestra of the north country given the wide geographic region it serves — from the St. Lawrence River all the way to Plattsburgh, and as far south as Watertown.

As a regional professional orchestra, ONNY is, unlike professional orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, not a full-time occupation. For ONNY’s general concert series, typically six to seven shows per season, musicians drive in on a Thursday, rehearse for three hours that night, another three Friday night and another three Saturday morning, then play in Potsdam Saturday night and do a “run-out” on Sunday, traveling somewhere in the north country and returning the same day.

Accordingly, Mr. Andrews said the orchestra couldn’t hope to survive without the support and use of facilities provided by Crane and SUNY Potsdam, the friends of the orchestra and business donors and the half dozen regular volunteers who coordinate the efforts of another few dozen.

Mr. Savage said the 25th season was an expensive one to produce, but the orchestra saw an increase in ticket sales, individual donations and foundation funding.

“We came out better than we could have possibly hoped as a result of that increase in support, so things are on an upswing,” he said.

2013-14 concert lineup

  • “Autumn Serenade” Oct. 26 at SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall and Oct. 27 at First Presbyterian Church in Watertown
  • “A Holiday Festival,” Dec. 13 at SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall, Dec. 14 at Dulles State Office Building, Watertown, Dec. 15 at Massena Central High School
  • “Sound the Trumpet,” Feb. 8 at Watertown’s Trinity Episcopal Church, Feb. 9 at Potsdam’s St. Mary’s Church
  • “A Symphony of Dinosaurs,” March 8 at SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall, featuring “Tyrannosaurus Sue: A Crestaceous Concerto” by Bruce Adolf
  • “Romantic Giants,” April 26 at SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall and April 27 in Watertown (venue TBA)
  • “Bravo Broadway!” July 2 at Thompson Park, Watertown, July 3, SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall

Tickets: $22 for adults, $20 for senior citizens, $10 for students and free for children 12 and younger. Season and group tickets are also available. Purchase tickets at www.onny.org.

The Northern New York Community Foundation has given ONNY a $17,000 grant for this season — a $2,000 increase over last year — and has provided grants both for the orchestra’s July 4 concert and Watertown series totaling $45,000 over the past three years. The foundation previously provided ONNY grants totaling $30,000 for various other programs, including performances in Lewis County.

ONNY has built up a $120,000 endowment over the last two years, which Mr. Andrews hopes will help provide a buffer to grow staff and increase musician compensation going forward.

“It’s about artistry and sustainability,” Mr. Savage said. “Our first mission without a doubt coming from the heart of the conductor is the desire to have the highest level of artistic realization possible, the thing that we grapple with as a board is how do we retain the greatest sense of that while at the same time operating in a way that is sustainable in the market that we’re in.”

To that end, ONNY has managed to keep ticket prices down, in the last 10 years only raising prices $4. The most expensive individual ticket is $22, while tickets to orchestras in metro areas can often be as high as $120.

Catering musically to such a broad area can also be a challenge.

“To keep a symphony orchestra alive in a county of 125,000 when it’s mostly rural means that we have to try to be as eclectic as our listeners’ tastes are,” Mr. Andrews said, adding that he is always open to suggestions for new literature and often premiers compositions by Crane faculty and world-renowned composers.

ONNY also tries to incorporate something everyone will love not only in each concert, but in the structure of a season, Mr. Andrews said. Seasons typically include three classical concerts—two large orchestral concerts and a specialty baroque concert—a family and children’s concert and two pops concerts—one holiday and one summer—in addition to occasional specialty concerts.

The orchestra kicked off its 26th season with a “Mostly Mozart” program in September performed in conjunction with the final round of the Julia Crane International Piano Competition, the first year the orchestra has partnered with the competition, which has brought young pianists from around the world to Crane since 2002.

ONNY also sponsors its own competition for young people, the James and Katherine Andrews Young Artist Instrumental Competition, that Mr. Andrews started with funds from his father who passed away in 1996 and is now in its eighth year. The competition is one of the few nationwide that offers cash prizes and the opportunity to play with a professional orchestra, Mr. Andrews said. Following the January competition, this year’s winner will join the orchestra at its March family concert “A Symphony of Dinosaurs” in Potsdam.

And for the most talented college musicians, ONNY provides apprenticeship opportunities. Mr. Andrews used to hold professional-level auditions but because of time, now bases admission on students’ chair auditions for Crane and teacher recommendations.

“The purpose is to give students the opportunity who are at that point,” Mr. Andrews said. “If I don’t feel that there are students at that time who are capable, we don’t use any in that section.”

Mr. Andrews hopes that in addition to garnering more funding to ramp up the orchestra’s “infrastructure” and staff and increase musician compensation, to do more recording and work to attract well-known rock or jazz ensembles to play with ONNY at pops or specialty concerts, or possibly add another classical concert. He also hopes to expand programming, possibly newer works and more premiers.

“We are looking to some really great concerts in the next three years and expanding some larger works,” he said.

Moreover, with ONNY’s high level of musicianship, he believes the orchestra can weather a tough economic climate, even in a diverse and rural area.

“The artistry of this organization is on par with orchestras with budgets ten times what our budget is,” he said.

Leah Buletti is a staff writer for NNY Magazines. Contact her at 661-2381 or lbuletti@wdt.net.