Oleander Chamber Orchestra Debuts in Wilmington: Interview with Founder Joby Brunjes
By Stuart Burnham
Wilmington, NC: On Sunday, October 15, a new professional ensemble called the Oleander Chamber Orchestra had its inaugural concert at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC. With members of the Degas String Quartet serving as sections leaders, the program began with Antonín Dvorák’s Nottorno for Strings, Op. 40, followed by Vivaldi’s most famous set of solo concertos, The Four Seasons, with Kevin Lawrence as violin soloist.
Once the “Notturno” began, it became immediately apparent that the OCO pays remarkable attention to phrasing and dynamics. Though the piece sits on an extended pedal-point in the opening bars, the music never seemed static, and I had that enjoyable sense of being “pulled in” to a concert.
After this short work came The Four Seasons. The ensemble was again first-rate from “Spring” all the way through “Winter,” but, as Vivaldi no doubt intended, it was the soloist who was most prominent. Kevin Lawrence made the audience hear these familiar works with fresh ears, bringing out subtleties seldom noticed by less sensitive violinists. Especially memorable was the Adagio of “Summer,” although he was just as superb in the more technically challenging movements, such as the opening Allegro of “Winter.”
After the performance, I had the opportunity to interview the OCO’s founder and conductor, Joby Brunjes about this wonderful new addition to Wilmington’s music scene.
CVNC: What was your motivation to start the OCO?
BRUNJES: Wilmington is a town that has been growing by leaps and bounds, but still has no professional orchestra. I also saw that there was a gap in this city’s musical world: we have performances by the North Carolina Symphony and the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra but have lacked a professional chamber orchestra that performs repertoire specific to its size. Being a Wilmington native, I also wanted to make the city a more inviting place for musicians and music lovers to live. There are many other towns similar in size in North Carolina that have well-established professional orchestras.
CVNC: Tell me about the concert venue(s) and why you chose them.
BRUNJES: Unfortunately, Wilmington does not have an adequate concert hall for a chamber orchestra. Kenan Auditorium [on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington] is expensive to rent, and does not have good acoustics for a small orchestra. First Presbyterian and St. Andrews [Covenant Presbyterian Church] have excellent acoustics, especially for strings.
CVNC: What about the new recital hall at UNCW?
BRUNJES: The new recital hall is an option, but it will only hold an audience of about three hundred. The stage is also an issue; I don’t think it was designed to hold over twenty-five people. I have considered a stage extension, but I haven’t even seen the hall yet; the opening of the performance wing of the building has been delayed until at least early November. [Brunjes is also a member of the UNCW string faculty.]
CVNC: The central work on the program was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Were you purposely starting off with a familiar work, and will the OCO generally stick with “listener friendly” repertoire? Would you consider programming something “less tonal” in the future?
BRUNJES: I intentionally picked the Vivaldi. It is one of the most recognizable pieces of all classical music, and I wanted to offer a concert that was inviting to a large, general audience. Also on the program was a lesser-known work by Dvorák, his Notturno for Strings. One of my goals is to offer at least one piece at each concert that is not as familiar to listeners so that they may hear pieces for the first time at our performances. I am already planning programs for the 07-08 season that include more “daring” repertoire, such as Copland’s Music for the Theatre and David Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra. Modern music should not be avoided. It is our job as performers to make all music accessible, but I wanted this first season to show off the best music for an orchestra of this particular size. The Notturno was originally a movement for string quartet, so it works very well with a small orchestra.
CVNC: You’re the conductor, but you’re also a violinist. Will you ever perform with the ensemble?
BRUNJES: I have considered it, and the group is talented enough for me to solo and lead at the same time, but conducting is my real passion. I’m happy to allow others to be the soloists.
CVNC: How are you able to offer free admission?
BRUNJES: I cannot charge admission for a concert held at a church, so it has inspired me to be more resourceful in my sponsor development. Both churches gave a donation to the orchestra, and the first concert was sponsored by Ferris Baker Watts, as well as through private donations. Future concerts will depend on continuing a high level of performance; if we don’t sound good, we won’t get the public support needed to continue.
CVNC: This year the OCO has just two concerts scheduled. Do you plan to offer more in future seasons?
BRUNJES: Yes, I hope to program at least 3 concerts next year. It will depend on the response to this season.
CVNC: Do you foresee chamber groups as the future of classical music concerts in Wilmington?
BRUNJES: That depends on a number of factors. If people from other areas of the country keep moving here, there will be a demand for more music in Wilmington. Right now the North Carolina Symphony has a very large season here because there is no professional orchestra in town. One of my goals with the OCO is to generate enough support to perform medium-sized orchestral works, and eventually graduate to full-orchestra status for at least one concert a year. Unfortunately, Wilmington has a few handicaps in this area. It does not have an adequate concert hall, nor does it have enough local professionals to support a full orchestra. “Importing” players is necessary, even for the chamber orchestra concerts this year.
CVNC: I noticed that Kevin Lawrence of the North Carolina School of the Arts offered a violin master class a couple days before he performed with the OCO. What role does education play in the mission of the ensemble?
BRUNJES: If classical music is to survive, every orchestra must consider itself a tool to educate the general public about a wealth of music they might otherwise not hear. Part of the OCO’s mission is to educate people of all ages. I hope to schedule additional master classes with future soloists, as I want to provide the Wilmington-area students with a chance to be taught by distinguished artists and teachers.