From Page to Novo, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra keeps getting better
By Rick Hutzell
The first audition for conductor of the Annapolis symphony went something like this.
A group of amateur musicians, teachers and a few professionals from the Naval Academy Band invited Kenneth W. Page in 1961 to the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church to hear them play.
Then, the story goes, they asked the longtime Annapolis High School music director to lead them.
Since that day, only six people have followed in Page’s steps as music director at the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. Each has defined anew what the orchestra is and what it can be.
“You have to create both the professional and emotional stage in which they can blossom with their utmost artistry,” said current music director José-Luis Novo, the longest-serving music director in the organization’s 60-year history. “If you do that, you have the collective talent of every single person to help you as the conductor and shape the music to the audience in the way you imagine.”
From Page to Novo — through the tenures of Leon Fleisher, Peter Bay, Leslie Dunner and Gisèle Ben-Dor — the music has gotten better and better.
“Somehow they keep improving it…” said Jim Cheevers, former president of the orchestra board and the retired director of the Naval Academy Museum.
Some of it has been the music, but it also has been about each conductor’s connection to the musicians, the organization and the audience.
“You grow your orchestra up,” Cheevers said. “And José-Luis has had a lot of time to do that. It has climbed.”
“Kenneth Page, conductor of the Annapolis Civic Orchestra, has announced the program for the joint concert with the Annapolis Chorale Society,” the April 28, 1962 notice in The Evening Capital read.
It was the birth announcement for a new cultural force in Annapolis, the product of those basement rehearsals.
Four weeks later, on May 22, Page led his musicians through Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” Iphigenia in Aulis: “Overture” by Christoph Gluck and Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Heavens are Falling” with the chorale society.
The response was so strong that Page began mapping out an annual series at Annapolis High School under a new name, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. A year after that, he helped 50 volunteers form the Friends of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and soon a board of directors started under Philip Richebourg.
Page was always thinking about the horizon. He speculated about the need for a community arts center to replace the high school auditorium and the possibility of a professional orchestra 20 years in the future.
“But our biggest goal will be to have an orchestra that is widely accepted and fully supported by the community,” he said in a 1967 interview with The Evening Capital.
He wouldn’t live to see that prediction come true. Page died suddenly in May 1969.
In reporting his death, The Evening Capital described him as “synonymous with music in this county.”
Replacing him would require someone special.
Leon Fleisher was famous long before he took up Page’s place in Annapolis.
A piano prodigy, Fleisher debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York at 16. By 1951, he won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium — playing Johannes Brahms’ 1st Concerto so strongly that two strings popped in his piano.
A decade later, at the top of his artistry, Fleisher’s right hand began to change. His fourth and fifth fingers curled into his palm. By 1966, he could no longer play with both hands.
He turned to pieces written for the left hand but also teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Then, in 1970, he accepted Richebourg’s invitation to try conducting in Annapolis.
Over the next 12 years, Fleisher transformed the orchestra. He hired professional staff, including the first assistant conductors and began holding auditions. Many of the new players came from Peabody, and Cheevers recalls a bus set up to shuttle them back and forth from Baltimore.
The former star of the concert stage also used his connections to attract an A-list of soloists over the years, including Issac Stern, Eugene Istomin and Charlie Byrd, according to the symphony’s official history.
Fleisher eventually learned he suffered from a degenerative nerve disease, dystonia. There would be short-lived periods of improvement.
One came in 1982, and Fleisher left Annapolis for a brief return to the concert stage playing with both hands. He would return many times both as a performer specializing again in left handpieces and guest conductor.
Fleisher, a musical force for more than eight decades, died at 92 in August 2020.
“The musical things he told the orchestra to do and just his aura,” said Bay, an assistant conductor under Fleisher. “He really transformed it.”
A fan of Fleisher since childhood, Bay was a Peabody graduate student rehearsing the student orchestra one day in 1979. There was an unnoticed guest in the audience: Fleisher.
“He came up and said he was the music director of ASO and his assistant conductor had just left and would I be interested…” Bay said. “After I got my jaw off the ground, I said absolutely.”
After Fleisher left, Bay joined 100 hopefuls vying to replace him. He remembers being surprised when the search committee chose him. He still wonders if Fleisher had anything to do with it.
“To this day, I owe him so much for getting my career off the ground,” he said.
That career has led him to Texas, where he is the longest-serving music director and conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. He is returning to Annapolis in November as a guest conductor as part of the anniversary season.
“I inherited a fantastic orchestra because that’s what Leon built there,” Bay said. “My goal was to maintain and, if possible build, on the standards that he set.”
To do that, he tried to balance Fleisher’s legacy with new directions. That meant blending in modern composers and even original pieces with the classics of Ludwig van Beethoven and Brahms.
“There was one piece that I recalled by Dominick Argento and it was called ‘Royal Invitation.’ It was a very quirky piece about a queen in an African country who made an extraordinarily lavish affair for her coronation. … It had all kinds of ragtime…
“There may have been complaints.”
But it was all part of keeping the musical discussion moving forward, helping the musicians grow and the audience expand through greater exposure to what the orchestra could accomplish.
Working with board president Anna E. Greenberg and the symphony’s first executive director, Patricia Edwards, Bay expanded the season to include more concerts and doubled the budget despite competition from national and other regional orchestras in the area.
Bay left when work with other orchestras began to dominate his time. His return to the symphony will feature a piece with a special meaning for him. The orchestra’s Low Brass Section will perform Jennifer Higdon’s “Low Brass Concerto.”
Among those performing will be trombonist David Sciannella, Bay’s high school classmate.
“It’s just amazing that I get to work with him on that piece,” Bay said.
Edwards knew what the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra needed in its next music director, telling a reporter in 1991 it was a “thorough professional” with a “stunning background.”
They found it in Gisèle Ben-Dor, who was the resident conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Her teachers included Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur and Zubin Mehta.
“She was very well recommended by both orchestras she worked with, had all the educational credentials — Tanglewood and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the master’s degree from Yale — she punched all the right buttons,” Edwards told The Baltimore Sun.
She also was pregnant with her second child. Instead of worrying about commitment, the orchestra leaders saw it as a sign that she was grounded and mature.
Ben-Dor recalls it as a perfect fit.
“I remember the people, the orchestra members, the pieces we played. It was very exciting for me,” Ben-Dor said.
In her first year, the Annapolis Symphony performed five double subscription concerts and two children’s concerts; its most ambitious season at that point. And Ben-Dor not only brought ambition but a taste for 20th-century composers, including Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók.
She knew her goal.
“It was to try to achieve with the orchestra the mental idea that I had of each piece. There’s no limit to that,” she said. “It’s never perfect. You demand this of a freelance orchestra, and of a regional orchestra and of a major orchestra. You’re always demanding the best of them.”
One of the best was concertmaster and violinist Brynn Albanese. In her first solo performance with the Symphony, Albanese let Ben-Dor pick the music — the “Winter” concerto from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending.”
It was the first time the orchestra had a woman music director, soloist, concertmaster and executive director. It was one of many firsts.
There was a first recording and the first Labor Day concert at Quiet Waters Park and the symphony’s first education program, Symphonic Music in the Schools. She added to the repertoire with first performances of Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland.
Then Ben-Dor added another role, conductor laureate at the Santa Barbara Symphony in California. The commute between her New Jersey home, Annapolis, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Boston and the West Coast told her it was time to move on. She believes she left the orchestra in better shape.
“People got used to paying attention,” she said. “They paid attention to the most basic things, like tuning, like playing together. Responding to the conductor, to me.”
There were 248 applicants to replace Ben-Dor in 1996. One of them was Leslie Dunner.
In a break with tradition, the Annapolis orchestra announced Dunner and three other finalists would perform as guest conductors during the 1997-98 season — the Season of the Search — and then choose Ben-Dor’s successor.
When Dunner arrived, he found the good things he’d heard about the orchestra were true.
“A willingness to work on new ideas with a conductor… a willingness to break things down in detail,” he said.
And that was part of the style Dunner brought to the role of music director in 1997, becoming the first Black conductor of the symphony. Dunner’s resume included being resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other roles. Today, he teaches at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan.
One of the reasons he was excited to come to Annapolis was a chance to work with Jane Kenworthy, the highly regarded executive director who replaced Edwards.
Together, their vision led to several new education initiatives aimed at inclusion and expansion of the symphony’s audience, including an Adopt-a-School program that put musicians with students at Georgetown Elementary School.
And Dunner said it continued in 2000 when the symphony captured one of the first Music Alive Grants from the League of American Orchestras, supporting a composer-in-residence.
Dunner’s time as music director came unexpectedly soon. The board announced it would not renew his contract, citing declining ticket sales and a desire for a new direction. Dunner says it was time to go and that he had decided to accept a position as music director and principal conductor of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.
Regardless, he finished out his final season in 2003 with performances that still make him proud, including “Honey and Rue,” a jazz-infused song cycle by Andre Previn to texts by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.
And with him was soprano Kishna Davis, who had joined him on stage as a last-minute substitute during that Season of the Search four years earlier.
“If we bring really fine music to an audience, and we work very diligently and in a way that they can understand, then the audience can understand,” Dunner said. “That’s the way to build your audience, that’s the way to build your musicians.”
Annapolis got a glimpse of the future in September 2004, when José-Luis Novo led the orchestra as the first of four guest conductors — again vying for the role of music director. A Spanish violinist who came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1998, he earned two master’s degrees from Yale.
As the conductor of the Binghamton Philharmonic in New York, he knew the reputation of the orchestra in Annapolis and its conductors.
“The thing that I remember … quite vividly was that the Annapolis Symphony had a history of music directors who moved on to bigger careers,” Novo said. “In the case of Leon Fleisher, he was always famous.”
David Lindauer, a reviewer for The Capital, praised Novo’s musical promise in that first appearance but was unimpressed with the orchestra’s first performance under Novo of unfamiliar pieces by Ravel, Manuel de Falla and Zoltán Kodály.
“Mr. Novo clearly had good ideas on how the music should sound, but the overall effect in several of these selections was uninvolving…,” he wrote in his review.
Novo recalls the search committee asking about his musical taste and realizing it was more progressive than existed in Annapolis. He planned to change that.
“You have to coach an audience,” he said. “You kind of prepare everyone that this is kind of a new project, and why we have to do this. If you are convincing and make a strong case, everyone will give you the benefit of doubt…”
Nine months later, orchestra President Lee Streby called Novo the best fit for the orchestra. He said the new music director demonstrated “musical artistry of the highest level” and was a perfect fit for the “vibrant and diverse arts community.”
And when he returned in May 2005 as music director, those promises and ideas paid off.
“When it was time to unleash his players, whether in the dark, tautly conceived forte passages in Schubert’s opening movement to the Unfinished, or for the expansive emotionalism of Dvorak’s New World, he didn’t hesitate to embrace the weighty excitement packed into these much-loved (and different) scores,” Baltimore Sun reviewer Phil Greenfield wrote.
Greenfield also wrote that the musicians showed their support for Novo with their playing, and today Novo is quick to talk about how he collaborates to achieve the best performance.
“For me, it’s all about trying to inspire musicians to become the best…” he said.
Two other factors have contributed to his longevity, Novo said. One has been the development of what he calls a professional board able to contribute more to the orchestra.
The other was the installation of an acoustic shell inside the Maryland Hall auditorium in 2014 that put an end to decades of poor sound in the renovated high school. Without that improvement, Novo said, the orchestra could not have achieved its current level of artistry.
Novo’s plans stretch out another five years, capitalizing on the streaming platform for live performances pioneered during the COVID pandemic, gaining a wider audience with more dates at the nationally known Music Center at Strathmore and launching a three-album recording deal.
He expects more from the new Annapolis Symphony Academy he helped launch and expand and its youth orchestra.
More performances are in the works for next season, and audiences can expect more new music. And, Novo said, there are always new audiences to win over.
“We are reaching to areas of the population that we have not reached before,” he said. “We want to do more concerts for more people.”
Rick Hutzell is a former editor of The Capital and a longtime Annapolis resident.