The Lawrence Chamber Orchestra
When people think of Lawrence, it's often Massachusetts Street, Jayhawk basketball or the city's bustling nightlife that come to mind.
Steven McDonald hopes to add to that list.
"I want them to think of the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra along with those as something that's very representative of this town," he says.
McDonald will conduct his first concert as artistic director of the 35-year-old group this weekend, when the orchestra presents "Showcase!" at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H. He has selected a repertoire that mixes styles and rhythms, time periods and moods.
"I'm also going to give a few program notes from the podium," he says. "I've found ... that really engages the audience, breaks down any implied wall that may be up there.
"There should be no wall because we're all benefiting from this music in different ways, both as musicians and as listeners."
Range of experience
McDonald, who is also director of orchestral activities at Ottawa University, succeeds Steven Elisha, who resigned at the end of last season after leading the orchestra since August 2004.
Despite only recently acquiring the title of artistic director, however, McDonald is no stranger to the orchestra. He has filled in as guest conductor several times in the past.
He also may be familiar to audiences who frequent other Lawrence music events. As a graduate student working toward his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at KU, he has been assistant conductor for the KU Symphony Orchestra and directed the chamber orchestra "Sine Nomine," KU Opera productions and the KU Camerata.
The latter was formed at the suggestion of Nicholas Uljanov, the previous director of KU's orchestra program, and composed of folks like music education and music therapy students who didn't have time to focus as intently on playing as their peers who were majoring in performance. It was a small group that played baroque music in the Central Court at the Spencer Museum of Art.
"It was a very engaging concert for the audience," McDonald says. "They were sitting on three sides of us, the nearest one only two feet away, so it really brought the audience into the performance. We really built a huge audience for those two years."
He's hoping to do the same with the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra which, in many ways, emulates that intimate concert experience.
For "Showcase!," 12 string players and nine horn and woodwind players will deliver works by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Elgar and 20th-century Swedish composer Dag Wiren.
The musicians will be in capable hands, says Terry Chauvin, president of the orchestra's board of directors, who notes that McDonald has experience conducting a broad range of musical genres and is himself an accomplished organ and harpsichord player.
"He understands a lot about many areas of music, and that always translates well into conducting because that person understands that music is more than just understanding how to read a score," Chauvin says. "It's bringing life to a score and being able to communicate with musicians.
"He really enjoys working with audiences, too, so he makes that connection between what musicians are doing on the stage and makes that come alive for the audience."
To increase awareness of the orchestra in Lawrence, McDonald and the board are partnering with local businesses, recruiting volunteers, reaching out to young people, offering discounted group ticket packages and attempting to make their performances more inviting. The New Hampshire St. Bistro will cater a post-concert reception on Saturday at the arts center.
"It will be a nice time for orchestra members to stay and mingle with the audience members and for the audience to feel like they're a part of the orchestra," Chauvin says. "I think one of the things arts groups always have to remember is we're pulling people out of chairs at home to come to our concerts.
"When we put on a concert, there are so many more things than music notes coming off the stage. It has to be something really wonderful to come to."
Not 'for snobs only'
But the music is still the core. McDonald says the program for the first concert includes some off-the-beaten-path offerings.
The Overture to "La fedelta premiata," by Haydn, is a real "rock 'em, sock 'em piece."
"If Haydn had been writing in the time of movie music, this would have been something to accompany a Keystone Cops film," McDonald says.
Then, Mendelssohn's Symphonic Movement in C minor heads in a completely different direction, featuring strings alone in a more serious, deliberate tone. Elgar's Chanson de Nuit is a "lush, warm piece of music from the High Victorian period in England," McDonald says.
And finally, the Serenade for Strings by Wiren represents "a wonderful example of how 20th-century music can be completely tuneful and approachable for the audience and thoroughly engaging and interesting to play for the musicians," McDonald says.
The orchestra's season will continue with shows in December, February and April. Chauvin hopes veteran concertgoers will continue attending and first-timers will give the group a shot.
"I don't want people to be intimidated by classical music," she says. "We need to get the message out that this is something that people should be interested in ... once they get past that barrier of thinking that it's for snobs only."