LAFAYETTE — There was a time when the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra could rely on nothing but faith.
Funding was low, and some board members thought a merger with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra was a sensible solution to what seemed inevitable — failure.
“But there were a few of us who pushed back,” says concertmaster Lauren Baker. “We knew that if we merged with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, there would be no more Acadiana Symphony.”
Today, Baker is especially enthusiastic about this organization, which began three decades ago as a college ensemble that needed the participation of community musicians to form a complete orchestra.
The group was known as L’Ochestre back then. It was formed by Allan Dennis, who was hired to start a symphony orchestra at what was then the University of Southwestern Louisiana.
Through the years, the orchestra has had its ups and downs. It made the jump from a community group to a professional organization and ran out of money a time or two. But it always survived.
As it celebrates its 30th season, the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra can pull from a roster of some 200 musicians and operates one of two music conservatories in the nation — the other is in Rhode Island — founded by a professional symphony orchestra.
This season marks Jenny Krueger’s 10th as a member of the orchestra’s flute section and her fifth as executive director. Krueger was a stay-at-home mom when she stepped into the temporary leadership capacity that became permanent after only a month.
It happened when the orchestra was experiencing one of its low points. Krueger was serving as a musician representative on the board of directors, and volunteered to serve as director while the board searched for someone new.
“After a month, they offered me the job,” Krueger says. “I had been in music education most of my adult life, and that’s what I brought to the table — the voice of a musician.”
Krueger has since worked with the orchestra’s music director and conductor Mariusz Smolij to find ways to better connect with the Lafayette community, including shortening concerts from two hours to 90 minutes, scheduling performances at 6 p.m. on Saturdays instead of 7 p.m. on a weekday and incorporating visual components to highlight the music.
For instance, this year, the orchestra is including a professional dance company from New York and a technique known as video choreography in its season.
“Last year, we did ‘Fantasia,’” Baker says. “It was the actual Disney animated movie, and we provided the music. I know it was difficult for Mariusz, because he had to watch the screen to know where to cue in the orchestra, but he did it, and the audience loved it.”
Still, the performance many members peg as the orchestra’s finest was the 2013-14 season finale of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 2,” the “Resurrection Symphony,” performed not only with its own symphony chorus but with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra and its chorus, as well.
The two organizations first performed the concert in the Baton Rouge River Center Theatre with Baton Rouge maestro Timothy Muffitt, then brought it to the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra’s home in the Heymann Peforming Arts Center, where Smolij conducted.
“It had to be the best we’ve ever performed,” says Mark Pritchard, principal cellist and a founding member.
Pritchard, owner of Mark Owen Pritchard Design Services, brings a difference perspective from that of other musicians.
“In architecture, what you build is right there for everyone to see,” he says. “But in music, you have to rebuild a piece each time for people to experience it. The music may be 100 or 200 years old, but it’s happening right now. I feel like we’re carrying on a legacy.”
Pritchard was working on his master’s degree at USL when he and other students helped Dennis form the orchestra.
The orchestra’s operations manager Tonio Cutrera also was there, as was his father, local music store owner Tony Cutrera.
“I play bass,” Tony Cutrera says. “My son and his friends would come in and raid the music store for what they needed for a concert. They needed community members to join, and I guess since I owned a bass and tuxedo, I was in,” he jokes.
Tonio Cutrera plays percussion, manages the orchestra’s equipment and is its historian.
Dennis, the symphony’s first conductor in 1984, spent two years at the helm. He was followed by conductor John Kenney, then John Shenaut, who founded the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra. He retired in December 1991, and Xioa-Lu Li took over the baton in 1992.
“Xiao-Lu Li was the conductor for 10 years, and he’s credited with getting the orchestra back on track,” Baker says.
Li was hired after Baker and other orchestra members pushed back against the idea of an Acadiana-Baton Rouge merger.
“The Acadiana Symphony had gone through some turmoil and was in dire straits,” Baker says. “That woke me up. We knew that a merge with Baton Rouge would mean that they may come over here and perform once in awhile, but we would no longer have our own organization. Xiao-Lu ran a tight ship. He was strict, and he was able to take this hodgepodge mix of musicians and turn it into a symphony orchestra.”
Baker also credits then-Executive Director Geraldine Hubble for the orchestra’s success and growth during this time.
“As a team, they did a lot of pioneering.” she says. “And it was also Xiao-Lu’s idea to start the conservatory.”
Li left the orchestra in 2002, and a committee of musicians, board members and community leaders conducted a national search for his successor during the 2002-2003 season.
Smolij began leading the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra in the 2003-2004 season.
“(Smolij) drives in from Houston,” Baker says. “That’s where he lives. His children go to school there. But he is so dedicated to this orchestra that there are times that he makes two or three round trips from Houston to Lafayette and back in a week.”
He also is in his 13th season as the music director of the Riverside Symphonia in New Jersey, and he serves as guest conductor for orchestras throughout the world. He has served on the faculty of the School of Music at Northwestern University in Chicago-Evanston, and at the time was the youngest full-time conducting faculty member among the top conservatories and universities in North America.
“Mariusz is also a violinist, which gives him a greater understanding of an orchestra,” Baker adds.
Orchestras are dominated by string instruments, the largest segment being violins, and “His understanding of strings makes all the difference,” Baker says.
Now that the orchestra has accomplished this 30th anniversary benchmark, it looks forward.
“We stage between 30 and 70 musicians for each concert, but we want to keep that roster of 200 to pull from,” Krueger says. “These are musicians coming from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, as well as Lafayette, to play with us. We have some coming in from Houston.”
The musicians are all ages, many of them students at LSU and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
And, as the conservatory, which provides music instruction for youngsters, continues to grow, so will the pool of musicians in Lafayette.“It was something that blew me away when I moved here,” Krueger says. “My husband’s job was transferred from New Orleans to Lafayette, and my first question was about the orchestra here. I couldn’t believe there was a symphony here, especially one of this caliber. And I was amazed that it also had a conservatory.”
All of which wouldn’t have happened if not for a little bit of faith.