October 2018


20 Questions for 20 Years

By Rob Kachelriess

Photos Courtesy Las Vegas Philharmonic

The Las Vegas Philharmonic celebrates its 20th anniversary as the 2018-2019 season gets underway at the Smith Center. President and CEO Jeri Crawford, Music Director Donato Cabrera and Principal Oboe Stephen Caplan reflect back on the milestones and evolution of the Philharmonic over the past two decades.

How many official shows has the Las Vegas Philharmonic played?

The April 2019 concert “Dvorak in America” will mark 150 performances for the Philharmonic. “We’ve performed on Saturday evenings since the beginning,” says Crawford.

How many additional shows have been part of the Youth Concert Series?

The Philharmonic has performed 180 free shows for Clark County students over the years. “We reach almost 20,000 kids a year through our youth concerts,” says Cabrera. “We also now take music to the schools for more one-on-one interaction with the kids, so they can actually touch the instrument and maybe try to play it.”

Where and when did the Philharmonic play its first show?

The first official show was July 4, 1998 at Hills Park in Summerlin. “There had been orchestras in Las Vegas for many years before the Las Vegas Philharmonic,” says Caplan. “The Nevada Symphony was struggling to meet payroll and a lot of musicians were disappointed. Hal Weller had guest conducted and saw what was going on. He felt there was an audience for an even bigger orchestra and didn’t understand why this one was struggling. When (the Nevada Symphony) officially fell apart, he organized that July 4th concert by the seat of his pants. All of a sudden, the date was open, so he threw together a concert at the last minute.”

Boosted by the success of that show and a new base of dedicated sponsors, the newly formed Las Vegas Philharmonic played its next show on May 8, 1999 at UNLV’s Ham Hall, its home venue until the Smith Center opened in 2012.

What are some of the biggest challenges faced over the years?

When getting off the ground, it was all about securing funding says Crawford, who came on board in 2005. “The wonderful original board of philanthropists, they all made a long-term commitment. The majority of those people stayed (with us at least) 10 years under the leadership of Andy and Susan Tompkins.”

Which shows have been the quickest sellouts or most in-demand?

“One of them was the first time we did the music of John WIlliams,” says Cabrera. “It’s part of our American cultural fabric. Who doesn’t know Star Wars, Jaws, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind? This music is part of our lives, and that concert was completely sold out.”

“The first one that comes to mind is opening night at the Smith Center,” says Crawford. “Not only were we sold out, but they were scalping tickets for $250 outside. What a great way to start a new life in a new performance venue.”

“We just did Carmina Burana last season,” says Caplan. “That one always sells out. Beethoven’s 9th, which we’re ending the season with this year, that’s another one we’ve done at least twice before and it’s always sold out. It’s just an incredible piece and always exciting to play.”

How has the schedule evolved over the years?

“We do a concert basically once a month between September and May,” says Cabrera. “That’s our season. We do a 4th of July concert and then we’ll begin again in September.”

“In the Troesh black box theater, we’ve added spotlight concerts,” he continues. “So not only do we provide the big symphony music concerts at Reynolds Hall, we provide chamber music concerts — maybe four or five musicians who play up close and personal to about 250 seats.”

How often does the Philharmonic rehearse?

“We rehearse, on average, four times for each concert,” says Cabrera.

“Sometimes we’ll have two rehearsals on Friday, a rehearsal on Saturday morning and a concert on Saturday night,” says Caplan. “Because we have quite a few out-of-town musicians who supplement what we do.”

How important is the Smith Center and in particular, Reynolds Hall to the Philharmonic?

“I’ll never forget the first time I walked out onto the stage for rehearsal,” says Cabrera. “I was really blown away. It’s one thing when you see the building from the outside, but it’s another when you look at the Smith Center from the stage. You see the gallery, the height of the building and the beautiful light fixtures. It’s really awe-inspiring.”

“The acoustics are excellent. There’s a lot of warmth to the sound,” adds Caplan. “They brought in the Philharmonic before the Smith Center officially opened and had us play a rehearsal so they could fool around with the acoustics and try to improve them.”

How does the Philharmonic recruit new performers?

“We follow this rather rigorous audition procedure that’s dictated by our contract with the musicians’ union,” says Cabrera. “It’s a national standard. We accept resumes and recordings, but the auditions themselves are completely blind from beginning to end. So we just know these people as numbers. We have no idea who they are or where they come from. When we finally choose the candidate, we find out who they are at the very end.”

How important are visuals in Philharmonic productions?

“A big craze over the last 10 years has been showing movies with an orchestra providing the soundtrack live (something the Las Vegas Philharmonic will do with Albert Hitchcock’s Psycho this season),” says Cabrera. “That’s a great use of technology, marrying cinema and sound in a new way that’s never been done before.”

Caplan thinks of visuals in another way: “Watching the way bows move on the strings, the wind players get red in the face, and the conductors move, there is a visual component to a live performance that’s part of what makes it better than a recording.”

How many members of the Philharmonic are on stage for any given show?

Typically, there are about 75 musicians during a Philharmonic performance. But during a major production that requires a choir and other additional musicians, there can be well over 100 performers on stage.

Which shows are the most fun for the musicians themselves?

“When we feel the audience is right there with us,” answers Cabrera. “It can be any show. It doesn’t matter the repertoire. For instance, we did an outdoor concert on the 4th of July at TPC Summerlin and the audience was so into it, we all had a great time on stage. And that’s why we do this. That’s why we play outdoors when it’s 100 degrees.”

“For me, getting the chance to play Mahler’s 4th Symphony is really fun,” adds Caplan, who also enjoys the youth concerts. “The kids are screaming at the top of their lungs and they’re a really fun audience to play for. You can see the excitement in their eyes and the energy in their voices.”

Any unexpected, comical or spontaneous moments during a performance?

When ticket holders buy a drink at the concession counter, it’s served in a covered plastic cup. “If you accidentally drop that, it’s the loudest thing in the world because the floor is marble and it bounces” says Cabrera. “I was conducting a soft piece and someone tried to take a sip from their cup and dropped it. It added this really hilarious percussive effect to this very delicate music. All you can do is chuckle when something like that happens.”

Crawford remembers a time when Oscar and Carolyn Goodman read “The Night Before Christmas” during a holiday performance: “They were sitting in these two big chairs on stage and Oscar had a giant martini glass sitting on a table between the two of them. Every time he was done reading, he would pick that glass up. It was very cute and people still talk about it.”

How many musicians have been with the Philharmonic since the very first show?

The answer is 15: Andre Long (piccolo), Beth Lano (French horn), Doug Beasley (French horn), Patrick Bowen (percussion), Kimberly Glennie (harp), Rebecca Sabine Ramsey (violin), Martha Gronemeier (violin), Shakeh Ghoukasian (violin), Kaye Sanderson (violin), Lauren Cordell (violin), Lee Schreiber (violin), Karl Reinarz (viola), Sharon Caldwell (viola), Robin Reinarz (cello) and Eddie Richards (bass).

Who are the unsung heroes who work backstage?

Director of Orchestra Operations Kevin Eberle is “really incredible in how he juggles so many things all at once,” says Caplan. “Not only with the musicians, but between the guest artists and management.”

“He’s the one who hires the musicians and makes sure they have their music on time, their seating arrangements are right, and everything is perfect the way Donato wants it.” adds Crawford. “He has a thankless job.”

Another backstage favorite is Dee Gillette, a longtime volunteer, who, at 89 years young, is trusted to keep an eye on the music cases, purses, and other personal items of the musicians while they’re on stage. “She’s part of the party. She’s part of the crew,” says Crawford.

Which instrument in the Philharmonic is the most underrated?

“It’s the oboe,” laughs Caplan. “We tune the orchestra. The scariest thing I have to do is play that one lone note at the beginning of the concert.”

“Take a look at the double basses,” says Cabrera. “Those big string instruments that seemingly play a tenth of the notes the violins do, but they’re the bedrock. They provide this carpet of sound that if it wasn’t there, everyone would know.”

Has the Philharmonic benefitted from the growth of Las Vegas?

There are other places where the population is so stagnant, people don’t feel there’s room for growth,” adds Caplan. “We have some excitement that there is always going to be new audiences out there ready to discover us.”

Is there room for the Philharmonic to expand its season?

“Communities like Portland, St. Paul and Pittsburgh have first-class orchestras with a full season, performing pretty much every week,” says Caplan. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have that. I think it’s the goal of both the musicians and the board, but that’s going to take a lot of fundraising.”

What can we expect from the new 2018-2019 season?

“Doing Psycho live with orchestra, that’s new for us,” says Cabrera. “We’re really excited to start what we hope will be a series of movies with live accompaniment. We’re part of a consortium of orchestras that helped provide the commission fee for Philip Glass to write a new piano concerto we’re going to premiere this season. In the bigger picture, some of the most popular music that people love will be heard this season — Beethoven’s 9th, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.”

Any secrets to scoring a good seat at a Philharmonic performance?

Subscriptions go on sale in April and are the first opportunities for inventory since single tickets don’t go on sale until the summer. Subscribers get the first pick of seats and can get the same seats guaranteed all season. A four-concert subscription is as little as $110, an intentionally approachable price point to make sure anyone can afford to experience art and culture in Las Vegas. “The community has been very kind to give us 20 years,” says Crawford. “And we’re looking forward to the next 20.”

Cabrera Conducts Bruckner program, May 27, 2017

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