And Counting

And Counting

The numbers are adding up for New Haven’s Orchestra New England (ONE), now on the brink of completing its 50th season. According to founding music director and conductor James Sinclair, the final concert of 2023-24, at 7:30 on 5/4 in Yale’s Battell Chapel, will be the ensemble’s 807th and will add two to the more than 70 compositions ONE has premiered over the years. The first is Symphony No. 5 by Joe Russo—the orchestra’s longtime principle bassist and personnel manager—and the second is “Light Autumn-First Snow,” a delicate piece by esteemed composer and music historian Jan Swafford, author of definitive biographies of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart.

“Both composers are well-known to our audiences,” says Sinclair. “I wanted to celebrate our 50th season with special music.” The evening will conclude with a piece by Beethoven: the rousing “Leonora Overture No. 3,” one of four he composed for his only opera, Fidelio.

You could fill a book with ONE’s accomplishments, some of which are counted, with a sense of humor, here—including the orchestra’s “most financially disastrous fundraiser,” which lost $4,000 despite a performance by iconic pop balladeer Michael Bolton. While Sinclair estimates he’s conducted 90 percent of ONE’s performances, the orchestra’s most notable guest conductor has been Aaron Copland, who took the podium for a performance of his Appalachian Spring in 1977. Other special guests and collaborators over the years have included Harry Belafonte, Jean Stapleton, Joan Kennedy (erstwhile spouse of Massachusetts senator Ted), Garrison Keillor and Metropolitan Opera stars Roberta Peters and Jerry Hadley.

ONE revived Cole Porter’s first successful Broadway show—1929’s Fifty Million Frenchmen—on disc in 1991, a production that was later staged at the Palace Theater (now College Street Music Hall), and played Stephen Sondheim’s 70th birthday celebration in 2000 at New York City’s Pierre Hotel. The orchestra’s popular “Colonial Concerts,” presented annually since 1980 in United Church on the Green, were broadcast nationally by PBS from 1982 to 1985, winning an audience of seven million viewers. Candlelit and featuring the musicians in historic garb, these shows “try to recreate the experience of hearing that era’s music for the first time,” Sinclair says.

Perhaps the orchestra’s most notable accomplishment involves its participation in the prolific posthumous career of Danbury native and Yale graduate Charles Ives (1874-1954). ONE has premiered 26 of Ives’s compositions, more than any other ensemble. Its seventh disc of works by Ives—which premieres five orchestral pieces—comes out this summer. Though Ives is best-known for his “modernist” inclinations and his use of polytonality, to describe him only in those terms, Sinclair says, is to sell him short. “I teach a course that follows his career chronologically; he bounces between modern music, retro styles and Victorian song. Everything he wrote was a new concept. He didn’t have a ‘system.’ He wrote more than 180 songs, and there aren’t two that are alike.”

Sinclair believes the most consistent trait of Ives’s music is its humanity. “All of his music celebrates people—people he knew and people in general,” he says. “There’s a New England ‘color’ that’s somehow attractive even to people from Europe, China and Africa. They just feel the connection of caring, cherishing people’s lives, whether in the church—because Ives’s music quotes a number of hymns—or through public experiences.”

Sinclair’s appreciation for Ives dates back to before ONE existed—and in an important sense led to the orchestra’s creation. He first discovered Ives as a Washington, D.C. high schooler in 1964, thanks to Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed and televised series of Young People’s Concerts. One show, titled “Farewell to Nationalism,” featured a panoply of pieces by international and American composers including Ives’s “Fourth of July,” the third movement in his A Symphony: New England Holidays. To put it mildly, Sinclair was captivated. “I wanted to know everything about Ives and got ahold of whatever was recorded and loads more that hadn’t been published or premiered. I found that the Library of Congress had a huge collection of photostats, just thousands of pages of manuscripts of his work.”

In 1972 while teaching at the University of Hawaii, Sinclair’s quest led him to contact John Kirkpatrick, then curator of Ives’s papers at Yale, who was mightily impressed by Sinclair’s scholarship. “He invited me to meet him in New Haven. I thought we would just have a morning meeting, but John encouraged me to stay overnight, and we continued our discussion the next morning. He invited me to lunch at his home. Finally he told me, ‘I need you to stay. I need you to work with me.’” Two years later, Yale celebrated Ives’s centenary by hosting a performance of his pieces for small orchestra—“what was called, in those days, a ‘theater orchestra,’” Sinclair says. “We created the Yale Theater Orchestra out of a group of volunteers, including Yale students and a couple of faculty members.” They premiered 14 Ives works to a capacity audience at 700-seat Sprague Hall, and the group that would become ONE was born.

One of the attendees, a Yale School of Music graduate, was a producer for CBS Masterworks (now part of Sony). “He came onstage afterwards and told me, ‘I’d like to record this for our label.’” Sinclair still marvels at that development: “Really, you couldn’t make this stuff up.” Two weeks later, Charles Ives: Old Songs Deranged (Music for Theater Orchestra) was in the can.

In its theater orchestra days, ONE numbered three-dozen musicians. Today, it boasts an upper limit of 55, though Sinclair notes its personnel remains “accordion-like” based on the requirements of each gig. “Unlike other orchestras, we aren’t bound by union contracts into a specific size,” he says. “We fit in well with the New Haven landscape, because there are a number of large ensembles here—Yale Symphony, Yale Philharmonia, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.”

Though it’s no longer a volunteer group, Sinclair maintains that ONE has remained “a very cohesive association of friends. They’re fabulous musicians, but they care about each other. They look forward to being with that select mix of people.” Turnover has been very low over 50 years. One bassoonist recently retired after 49 seasons, and “our woodwinds have been with us forever and our concertmaster 40 years. They’re all still playing their butts off.”

It no doubt helps that they’re particularly well paid. “We’re probably the highest-paid orchestra in the state on a per-gig basis,” Sinclair notes. “Hartford Symphony plays more nights than we do, but we’re catching up.” At present, the only full-time orchestra in New England is the Boston Symphony, but ONE is currently embarking on a plan to change this. According to Sinclair, the orchestra is the beneficiary of an estate in which they will be awarded “certain millions per year for a period of 15 years,” enabling it to grow in size and become full-time. The details of this “overwhelming financial support” have not been officially announced yet, nor has any definitive schedule for the celebration of the rest of Charles Ives’s sesquicentennial year, which peaks on his birthday, October 20. “We have our own idea in mind, but it has to be paid for,” Sinclair says, noting that ONE will most likely also be part of other commemorative events in Connecticut and beyond.

For further information, fans of the composer—and this storied New Haven orchestra—will just have to stay tuned.

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1, of the orchestra in rehearsal with Middletown’s GMChorale, photographed by James Sinclair. Images 2, of Sinclair, and 3, of string and horn players, photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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