Aug 22, 2023

A funny thing happened on the way to the…

A funny thing happened on the way to the… Our journey from The Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey to The Discovery Orchestra

The “short” version:

Fall 1987.  With the help of many individuals – notably our spouses Rena and Marcia, and persuasive community influencers Betse Gump and Mary Horn – Brian Frederick Dallow and I founded The Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey as a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity.  In January 1988, the first of what would become an annual fundraising event – our Viennese Ball – was given at the Chubb Corporate Headquarters in Warren Township. This very successful venture helped finance our premiere symphonic concert presented two months later on March 12, 1988, at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge.  I was thrilled to be conducting such an outstanding roster of musicians.  It went well.  We received a prolonged standing ovation.  The Star-Ledger said: “…fine as one could wish… at all times technically as good as it gets.”  And the critic from The Courier News – USA Today wrote: “…an ensemble ready to be compared favorably against the highest musical standards.”   We were pleased.

Soon, a few individuals began contacting our office: “Where or how can I learn more about classical music?” or “Our kids are out of the house now.  Is there an evening course my husband and I could take on how to listen to classical music?” or  “My wife has been dragging me to symphony orchestra concerts for decades, and I’m bored to tears and fall asleep. Can you help me?”  The Perceptive Listening Course (later renamed Fall in Love With Music) was then created. It was comprised of eight 90-minute sessions given one evening a week for eight weeks. Initially taken by 12 students, classes swelled during the 1990s to groups of 30 and more, with the eight-unit course offered twice each season in various towns… Watchung, Summit, Montclair, West Orange, and Berkeley Heights among them.

At a 1995 Board visioning exercise, someone asked: “Could you do in a concert what you do in these classes?”  I replied “Yes!”  On Sunday, November 24, 1996 our first Discovery Concert© was given at Princeton University featuring Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. Well-received by the audience and the one music critic in attendance, we decided to make a Discovery Concert a permanent offering of each subsequent season.  At a 1999 long-range planning session, Board members were asked to write their own personal list of the top five things they’d like to see happen at The Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey.  These suggestions were then written on large sheets of paper taped to the wall, and the Trustees were asked to rank these with “1” being the most important.  Making a Discovery Concert into a public television show received the most first place votes.

In 2002, Bach to the Future was videotaped – on spec –at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark. We did not know if any public television stations would choose to broadcast it.  Board member and Producer Elise van Stolk then sent the show to American Public Television (APT).  APT decided to distribute Bach to the Future nationally.  It was first broadcast by Philadelphia’s station WHYY on the afternoon of New Year’s Day 2003 – in an ideal time slot just one hour before the annual televised New Year’s Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic!  The program subsequently received an Emmy nomination and was broadcast from coast to coast and in Canada over the next three years, and seen by nearly one million viewers according to the Nielsen ratings.

In the wake of this success, Board meeting conversations began to occasionally include these questions: “What is the most important thing The Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey provides? What unique offering does it present that other professional symphony orchestras do not?”

Some trustees thought our Viennese Ball was that unique offering. By that time, the Viennese Ball had moved from New Jersey to the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.  And though it was immensely enjoyed – in some years by as many as 600 attendees – it became financially less and less viable in the wake of the 9/11 disaster in Manhattan and was ultimately discontinued following the 17th Annual Viennese Ball.

Others thought our symphonic concerts themselves, such as our annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah in Prudential Hall at NJPAC, were so superb that they were the most important thing we did.  But… there began to emerge a persistent drumbeat around the idea that we were the only professional symphony orchestra effectively teaching audience members how to really listen to classical music, in a manner that profoundly changed an individual’s relationship to classical music in a most thrilling, visceral way.

There were audible gasps at the first Board meeting when it was suggested that we consider presenting only Discovery Concerts each season!  No more regular symphonic concerts. However, the momentum continued during the Board presidency of Cathy Aquila, who in her own words: “…led an in-depth strategic review that resulted in the renaming and rebranding of what is today The Discovery Orchestra.”

It was not all fun and games, although the name “The Discovery Orchestra” was originally suggested to me at the annual parish picnic of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Gladstone by friend and then Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey advisor, Richard Somerset-Ward.  And the new wording of our mission statement was actually physically handed to me by a fellow participant at a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation workshop.  After asking me to describe what The Discovery Orchestra would be doing, he wrote for a moment, and then handed me his piece of paper. It read: “We teach the listening skills that help people really connect with classical music.”

We actually lost some trustees who rather liked being on the Board of The Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey but felt that the sound of being a trustee of The Discovery Orchestra did not have quite the same panache.  All of the handwringing notwithstanding, and after several crucial Board votes, we decided to legally change our name and mission, while retaining ownership of the original name.  And in 2006, Cathy Aquila, having masterfully steered us through the process, handed the reins of the newly-named Discovery Orchestra over to her successor as Board president, Dennis Estis.  Six public television shows, three Emmy nominations, eleven Telly Awards, and millions of thrilled viewers later… were still going strong!  And we never could have done this without Ginny Johnston.