Phil Burkhart: What does the Austin Symphony Orchestra do for our community?

Published 6:01 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2023

In this column I would like to talk about the many contributions the Austin Symphony Orchestra has made to our community over the last 66 years. As you will see we take our mission seriously to uplift our community by serving as a gathering place where we can all share the joy of making great music.

A large part of that mission is found in our educational programs. All youth may attend any of our concerts free of charge. Plus, every year we perform two concerts for area kids in fourth through sixth grades. This year we had over 2,000 students attend from Austin and eight other communities in southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa. At these concerts the students learn about the instruments of the orchestra and the wide variety of music we perform. Most important, they learn how to listen and behave at a concert, both important life skills. They are also encouraged to start an instrument, or, if they already play, they are motivated to continue to improve. And that is another great life skill. We think these concerts have inspired many young people to pursue music as a profession or a lifelong hobby.

Another important educational opportunity we offer is membership in the symphony. In the past we have had advanced students join us from the fine music programs in Austin, Albert Lea, Owatonna and Blooming Prairie schools to name just a few. The experience of playing with a community orchestra is truly memorable and a great motivator. We also have college students from several area colleges. The symphony even awards scholarships for private lessons to both students and adults. The Austin Symphony is awarding scholarships for private study to Brandon Lawhead on violin and Hayley Rafferty on cello.

Brandon Lawhead

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Riverland students may also take symphony for college credit.

Many former student members of the symphony have gone on to successful careers as professional musicians, teachers and members of the music industry. Check out the Music Hall of Fame display outside Knowlton Auditorium.

In fact, our next concert on Feb. 26 will feature Richard Roberts, the concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony and graduate of the Austin music program and Austin Symphony. More about Richard in my next column.

Graduates of the Austin Symphony have gone on to play on Broadway and with the Metropolitan Opera, as well as other orchestras in the United States and Europe. And many have had rewarding careers teaching music to youth and adults.

The symphony is constantly reaching out to involve members of the community. We have featured many local arts groups, from jazz bands to dance companies to theater groups to popular vocal ensembles as well as instrumental soloists. The list is long and varied. We are dedicated to showcasing and encouraging local talent.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our long history of vocal collaborations. The Symphony Chorus has provided area singers a chance to perform a rich collection of classical choral works with a full orchestral accompaniment for 66 years.  Many of those feature soloists, and many of those soloists have

Hayley Rafferty

been local singers. In addition, we have, over the years, invited local high school and college choirs to sing with us, either as part of the Symphony Chorus or as an independent choir.

Of course, one of the best gifts we give is to bring in world class soloists to perform with us. What a thrill it is to watch a great player in action. It inspires us as musicians and, we hope, uplifts our audience to hear world class musicianship.

The symphony also collaborates with the MacPhail Center for Music. Not only do some of the MacPhail students perform with us, but the Children’s Choir, a MacPhail program that involves 120 grade school students, has been featured with the symphony. In addition, MacPhail is partnering with us and the Austin Public Schools on a new program that allows the public to play the world class Fazioli piano. More on this program in my next column.

We are also collaborating with Common Chords to bring the Minnesota Orchestra to Austin. Orchestra Week begins with a performance by our Austin Symphony on April 30 and concludes with a concert by the Minnesota Orchestra on May 6. Throughout that week musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will perform around town. Stay tuned for more information on this incredible opportunity.

We hope that, because of these programs and the opportunities they offer, we have entertained, educated and enriched the community of Austin. But I should mention that none of this would be possible without the help of the Austin Public Schools, our donors, our Board of Directors, our wonderful musicians, and you, the community that attends our concerts. Your enthusiastic support means everything to us.