'Miracle' symphony sounds 10th anniversary

March 12, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Barry Tuckwell says they don't ask what he's doing in Hagerstown anymore.

"No, now they refer to us as 'the miracle in Western Maryland,' " says Tuckwell, music director of the Maryland Symphony and the most celebrated French horn player for most of the adult part of his 61 years.

Tuckwell was taking stock the other day because this weekend he will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Maryland Symphony in Hagerstown -- he and the orchestra will give anniversary concerts Saturday and Sunday in the Maryland Theater.

People used to be astonished that Tuckwell, who maintains a busy international schedule of 90 concerts a year, established an orchestra in Hagerstown. And, frankly, it is somewhat astonishing that so famous a composer as Richard Rodney Bennett has written a full-length orchestral piece for the Maryland Symphony, which it will perform this weekend. Composers such as Bennett, one of England's most celebrated composers, usually write for orchestras such as those of Cleveland and Philadelphia, and for huge fees.

Tuckwell won't say how much Bennett's piece cost, but adds, "He's a friend and it's not a purely commercial undertaking" on Bennett's part. Because of Tuckwell's fame and his commitment to Hagerstown, he's not only been able to persuade friends such as Bennett to write for his orchestra but also to induce other friends such as conductor Mitch Miller and pianist Daniel Blumenthal to appear with it.

The orchestra's growth has been extraordinary in other ways also. From four single concerts 10 years ago, the orchestra now gives five pairs of classical concerts, six other concerts by the full orchestra and more than 50 concerts by ensembles made up from the orchestra.

"The budget has more than quintupled -- it's now more than $500,000 -- in 10 years," says Sandy Wantz, the Maryland Symphony's managing director. "People are thrilled to have someone of Barry's stature here."

The orchestra does indeed reach a lot of people in Western Maryland. There are 110,000 people in Washington County and surveys indicate, Wantz says, that the orchestra reaches about 35,000 of them -- 25,000 alone at the orchestra's annual outdoor July Fourth concert at Antietam. During Tuckwell's first year in Hagerstown, the orchestra's total audience was 1,400.

L "It's been a thrill to reach so many people," Tuckwell says.

Tuckwell landed in Hagerstown because of his old friend, Walter Lawson, a former Baltimore Symphony horn player who lives in nearby Boonsboro and who, Tuckwell says, "builds the most beautiful French horns in the world and persuaded me to get involved with building an orchestra here."

From spending merely a few days in Hagerstown, Tuckwell now spends more than 10 weeks a year there. He has bought a house in Hagerstown. In June he plans to marry Sue Elliott, "the love of my life," he says, and a former Sun reporter who is now an executive with Potomac Edison.

"I love it out here," Tuckwell says. "I have more friends now in Hagerstown than I have in London."

The Australian-born Tuckwell spent the early 1950s as the second horn in the London Symphony.

"All I wanted in those days was to become the greatest horn player in the world," he says. By the end of the 1950s he had succeeded. No one else in the history of the instrument -- with the exception of the tragically short-lived Dennis Brain -- had ever made that treacherous instrument, which can strike with a mysteriously honked note as quickly as a cobra, sound so easy to play or as noble. But before the end of the 1960s, Tuckwell wanted to conduct as well as play.

"I fought the idea at first," he says. "I saw so many people hop onto the podium for the wrong reasons. Anyone in a first-class orchestra knows he can get up and do better than some of the incompetents who call themselves conductors. You think, 'Why am I here and why are they there?' But finally I decided to take the plunge. I got a lot of encouragement from Adrian Boult and some free lessons from Lorin Maazel."

In the early 1970s, Tuckwell was only one of a number of famous soloists trying their luck on the podium. Twenty years later, he's one of the few who remains. What seems to have made the difference, Tuckwell says, is that he was committed to being a conductor -- as opposed to developing a hedge against the time when his days as a soloist would be numbered.

And although he guest conducts with orchestras as prestigious as those of Pittsburgh and Detroit, he is unusually committed to his home base in Hagerstown.

"When people used to say, 'How could you have an orchestra in Hagerstown,' my answer would always be that you can have an orchestra anywhere because people are waiting for it to happen," Tuckwell says. "There is a very cultured community here and my experience has been that if you provide them with something substantial, they'll come."

Maryland Symphony

When: Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Where: The Maryland Theater, 21 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown.

Tickets: $8-$23; half-price for students and children for Sunday matinee.

Call: (301) 790-2000 or (800) 347-4697.

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