An Extraordinary Orchestra with a Common Touch

With an entire symphony orchestra on stage, you can’t expect a raffle winner to be named without some kind of fanfare. And so, in fine game-show style, the announcement is accompanied by a darkly dramatic timpani roll, then punctuated by a smart cymbal crash.

It’s all part of the fun at concerts of the New Hampshire Philharmonic, which bills itself as the state’s community orchestra. Made up of amateur musicians from around the Granite State, the Philharmonic stages regular concerts at Manchester’s Palace Theatre.

“We call it a living laboratory,” says Paul Hoffman, the orchestra’s executive director. “It’s a peculiar concept — we are a mixing ground for amateurs, professionals, and students who all play together.

That’s pretty rare, but we put it all together and see what we get.”

The result is an orchestra that offers New Hampshire music-lovers a great many ways to participate, and you don’t have to play an instrument. Even if you don’t know Bach from Bacharach, the Philharmonic will welcome you into the fold.

For starters, Hoffman suggests attending a performance. In an age when the world’s great orchestras are available at the touch of a button on recordings, there’s still nothing that quite compares to 70 local musicians all walking the tightrope of a live performance together.

The next Philharmonic concerts will take place on Saturday, March 13, at the Palace Theatre. The group will stage an abbreviated children’s concert at 3 p.m. and then play a full concert program at 8 p.m.

The afternoon children’s concert, subtitled “It’s a Zoo Out There,” features the ever-popular “Carnival of the Animals” suite by Camille Saint Saens. Narration will be provided by John Walters of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Afterward, the Philharmonic will offer what Hoffman describes as a “musical petting zoo.” Young listeners are invited up on stage to mingle with the musicians and get to know the orchestral instruments up close and personal.

“We tried this last season, but we scheduled our petting zoo at the same time as Manchester’s annual holiday parade going down Elm Street,” Hoffman recalls. “Even with that, we had something like a hundred kids standing in line to try a flute or play a tuba. It’s a great avenue for kids to experience the orchestra.”

The evening concert is co-sponsored by Manchester’s Centre Franco-Americain and spotlights French culture. Devoted to music by French composers, it will include Ravel’s “Bolero,” the March from “Damnation of Faust” by Berlioz and, yes, “Carnival of the Animals.”

Both concerts will provide chances to observe the striking “podium style” of conductor Anthony Princiotti, now in his fourth season of leading the Philharmonic. Princiotti conducts without a baton, and isn’t shy about making full use of his body and face to communicate with the musicians.

“He’s a delight to watch,” says Hoffman, who also plays viola in the orchestra. “People often talk about how he’s like a dancer in the way he moves. It really helps you understand what’s going on in the music.”

Then there’s the wardrobe. Princiotti eschews the usual concert formalwear for Nehru jackets and other non-traditional garb that allows him full body movement.

“That’s simply his choice,” Hoffman says. “That’s what he feels comfortable conducting in.”

Princiotti’s energy isn’t just a show for the audience. His efforts keep the players focused and striving for a high level of performance not only on stage, but also in weekly rehearsals.

“People drive up to an hour and a half for the privilege of working with Tony and the other musicians,” Hoffman says.

If you like what you hear, the orchestra offers other avenues for involvement.

Most activities are organized by the Friends of the Philharmonic, a group of supporters who help out with everything from mailings to ushering at concerts. Volunteers are especially important to a community institution such as the Philharmonic, of which Hoffman is the sole full-time employee.

“It takes all these people working together to make this music happen,” Hoffman says. “As a musician, I always enjoy making the music. But it’s really eye-opening to see the amount of work it takes to put on a concert.”

Looking ahead, the tempo is picking up as the orchestra prepares to celebrate its 100th season next year. To help mobilize support, the Philharmonic is holding a first-ever Valentine’s Day dance with dessert buffet on Saturday, Feb. 14, in the ballroom of the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester.

“We’re definitely going to be using our volunteers to make that happen,” Hoffman says. “The volunteers are a very important part of what we do. They may not be musicians, but they can still be of immense help.”

And if you do play an instrument, the Philharmonic would love to have you join in. Openings aren’t always available and there’s an audition process, but local amateur musicians are the foundation of the orchestra’s success.

“We have doctors and bankers and lawyers and teachers — people from all walks of life,” Hoffman says. “For us, making music is a joy, and that’s something people can sense from the stage. I think it’s palpable.”

And that’s the main reason the Philharmonic continues to flourish after nearly a century of making music.

“The neat thing about us is that many times the musicians are grappling with the work for the first and the only time in their career,” Hoffman says. “This fall was the first time I ever played Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and I may never play it again. So there’s a freshness to it.”

If you’re interested in music made locally by your friends and neighbors, the New Hampshire Philharmonic is well worth your attention.

Plus, you might even win the raffle. NH

Writer Jeff Rapsis reviews orchestra and opera for Manchester’s weekly paper HippoPress.

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The New Hampshire Philharmonic performs regularly at the Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester. For more information about concerts, the Valentine dance or volunteering, call the orchestra at (603) 647-6476 or visit