The Garden State Philharmonic - Creating Classical Connections for Concertgoers

The Garden State Philharmonic - Creating Classical Connections for Concertgoers

Anthony LaGruth

Anthony LaGruth

Music has been in my life for as long as I can remember – from the big bands, smooth crooners, and show tunes my parents favored to the jazz and folk music I discovered as a teenager, and almost everything in between. Classical music was there, too. My father loved Ravel’s “Bolero.” I drifted away to Tchaikovsky during performances of “The Nutcracker.” Eric Satie’s music spoke to me.

But I still felt as though classical music, as a genre, was a mystery to me.

However, an enlightening conversation I recently had with Anthony LaGruth, Artistic Director and Conductor for the Garden State Philharmonic, changed that.

“Classical is a misnomer,” LaGruth told me. “It is not just symphonic music. It refers to a certain period of time in the history of music.”

And it is LaGruth’s goal, in his pre-concert discussions and while speaking to the audience during performances, to address that misconception and put the music into context.

“We want to reveal how a piece reflects the life and experience of its composer,” LaGruth explained. “If someone understands why the music sounds the way it does, they’re likely to appreciate it more.”

The Garden State Philharmonic’s upcoming program, “Lights, Camera… MUSIC!” on Saturday, April 12, 8:00 p.m. at the Strand Theater in Lakewood is a perfect illustration.

“The music in ‘Lights, Camera… MUSIC!’ is celebratory,” said LaGruth, “with a variety of styles.”

The concert will include selections by artists like John Williams, whose music for “Star Wars” helped director Steven Spielberg use a big sound to tell his big story. It will also feature a tribute to silent films, a nod to some film favorites, like “Rocky” and the James Bond series, and homage to the 75th anniversary of “Gone with the Wind.”

“There will be a little bit of everything,” LaGruth said.

The orchestra’s primary venue is the Strand Theater in Lakewood, a grand space with an equally grand history. “The building is on both the state and national historic registers,” LaGruth said. “All kinds of people have played in there.”

“And it’s an equal distance from New York and Philadelphia,” he said, “with no tunnel to go through or bridges to cross.”

Anthony LaGruth

Anthony LaGruth

In the current cultural environment, LaGruth notes, it is no longer a given that people understand the significance of having access to an orchestra.

“Lately it seems that orchestras get the most attention when the details of their financial woes make the news, or in a situation, such as the New York Philharmonic’s special performance after the 9-11 tragedy, that brings together a community seeking solace.”

This situation is something that the GSP works to address with its varied repertoire, and also with programs such as Music for Young People, started in 1959 as a cooperative effort between school music teachers and the GSP; the Youth Orchestra Program, established in 1970, for students in 6th grade through the first year of college; and the MasterWorks Chorus, which was created in 1984 and is open to members of the community. The GSP is also the orchestra-in-residence at Ocean County College.

Today, the Garden State Philharmonic is a professional orchestra that presents a four to five concert subscription series; at least one holiday concert (alone or together with a regional partner); a free Young People’s Concert at the end of the Music for Young People School Residency Program; and a free Fourth of July Concert, with support from Ocean County Freeholders and the NJ State Council on the Arts.

The GSP has many long-time subscribers, and it is a testament to the orchestra that the audience is so devoted. But branching out and discovering common threads with wide appeal can be a challenge.

“With a small budget and a limited season of five to seven performances,” said LaGruth, “it can be tough to find ways to bring in new audiences and keep the ones we have.”

“We try to broaden the concert experience beyond just sitting in the dark listening to music,” he added. “That is not what people do anymore.”

For years, LaGruth explained, orchestras relied on program notes, presented from the perspective of some well-versed (pun intended) music historian, to educate audiences about what they were hearing. But this is a model whose time has come and gone, at least for the Garden State Philharmonic. This is where “Musically Speaking,”LaGruth’s pre-concert talks, comes in.

“We want to tell a good narrative, through the music,” he said, “and encourage the audience to be part of the experience.”

“We’re no longer saying ‘you’re going to sit for 90 minutes and listen, and, for God’s sake, don’t clap in the wrong place.’ We try to make it fun.”

Join the Garden State Philharmonic for musical highlights from some of Hollywood’s greatest movies at “Lights, Camera… MUSIC!” The evening will feature the music of Steiner, Raskin, Arlen, Hermann, Williams and others on Saturday, April 12, 8:00 p.m. at the Strand Theater in Lakewood.

The spring season will also include “Una Bella Notte," an evening of Italian music, wine and cuisine, May 8; “Mahler and LaGruth!”, a performance of Mahler’s captivating fifth symphony, May 31; and the 11th annual Choral Pops Dinner and Auction, June 19.

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