Expanding the Experience: Jonathan McPhee

Q&A with Jonathan McPhee, the conductor of the Nashua Symphony

After 90 years in Nashua, the state's oldest professional symphony (and the only one with a chorus) is taking its music beyond the Gate City's borders. "Nashua is still our home base," says Jonathan McPhee, the orchestra's conductor. But he adds that now the aim is to "reach the largest number of people in concert, as an educational force and as a force for good in the communities."

To signify the change in mission, the name has been changed from the Nashua Symphony to Symphony NH. McPhee, who's now in his fifth year with the orchestra, will conduct two performances this season in Manchester and hopes to expand into the rest of New Hampshire in future seasons. Despite the down economy, McPhee, his 65 musicians and the affiliated chorus have continued to attract audiences. "We have managed to grow through most of this recession, which says something."

He knows the future depends on getting young people interested in classical music, so Symphony NH each year takes an ensemble into schools and then brings them together for a full symphony experience. "We have to go to them,"he says, "before they come to us."

One of the orchestra's aims is "addressing the need for human connection in the world of arts." How do you do that?
Music is basic to all humanity. It is a form of communication unlike any other. It does not require training or language to understand the emotional content of a piece of music. It can unite people on a massive scale as in patriotic songs, and touch us individually on a personal level. It even transports us through time - you hear a song and can remember a person and a place.

Is all your music classical?
The majority of our repertory covers everything from Bach to living composers like New Hampshire's own Josef Schwantner. The repertory this year also includes one concert that will feature selections from "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera" performed with a full orchestra and chorus. I would love to see a mix of classics and Pop for a free outdoor concert in the future. Know a sponsor?

Do you feel you need to perform the "biggest hits" symphonies?
Absolutely. And we should. Just the thrill of Beethoven's 5th Symphony driving through you or the bombast of a Tchaikovsky symphony - a live performance of these standards just can't be beat.

Is it tough to compete with so many entertainment options available?
There are two questions here. It is tough to compete with anything for people's time. Everyone has a million things to do and we are asking them to come to a concert. Yes, all arts organizations compete for support dollars, but people who tend to support and enjoy one arts group usually support others as well.

Will there always be a place for live musical performances?
Live music is dangerous. Each performance of a piece is never exactly the same. A CD is always the same. It is predictable. Live is not. Is there a difference between seeing Bruce Springstein live and just hearing him on a CD? Live is an experience.

Do you worry there won't be?
Yes. People who have never experienced the difference don't know what they are missing. We need to do a better job so that people realize what an important part of their community an orchestra can be.

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