‘People are excited that we’re doing it. It’s one of the few New Year’s Eve concerts in the area,” says John Holly, music director of the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra.
Holly is talking about a long-standing capital city tradition that missed a beat last year but is now keeping tempo.
The conductor, who started with the orchestra in 1990 and is marking his 20th New Year’s concert, says, “The New Year’s concert is always a big exciting production. It takes a lot of planning and preparation. I’m in high gear right now.”
Holly says that last year’s changes in Trenton at the War Memorial building, where the 93-year-old orchestra has had an historic presence, and attempts to adopt new organizational practices indicated that a sustained pause in the New Year’s presentation was better than an out-of-rhythm effort. That was especially true since there are substantial costs involved with preparing for a major concert in the 1,833 seat War Memorial venue, which also uses the more benign name Patriot’s Theater.
But this year operations are more in tune, and the organization seems to have adjusted to change. “We’re prepared,” says Holly. That preparation includes handling its own box office, including electronic ordering.
Another change this year is that Holly will literally hand the baton to Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra associate conductor Brian Katona. Says Holly, “Brian lives in West Windsor and is a professor at Rutgers. He’s a young fellow that I have met and worked with numerous times with the Trenton Symphony. We’ve shared the podium on a number of occasions. I figured that since I was busy, I thought that would be good.”
In addition to his performances as a conductor and pianist for orchestras in Los Angeles and New York as well as a number of European cities, Katona is creating music for the show “Empress.” A selection of that work will be performed at the concert.
Holly’s current busyness is connected to teaching and management. The Lambertville resident travels to Rowan University to teach music and provides an online music history course at Burlington County College. He also devotes the time needed to maintain the orchestra’s affairs and present viable and cost-effective programs to keep the organization visible during a time when many orchestras and arts organizations around the country.
“The orchestra generally produces or presents three or four concerts a year, but it’s becoming harder with funding to produce events,” says Holly.
To meet its needs the orchestra is exploring the creation of concerts that focus on a single instrument and strengthening musical partnerships that have a built in audience, such as its October presentation of the U.S. Marine band. That event attracted 1,200 people, says Holly.
Then there are efforts to develop audiences for the future. “We presented more educational programs. Each year for the past four years we have presented a concert with the Philadelphia Sinfonia, one of America’s leading orchestras for young musicians in America. We have a close relationship with them,” Holly says. Other programs are being developed with the Music Educators of New Jersey.
That interest in students and education is connected to Holly’s background. The son of an attorney father and a borough clerk in Franklin Lakes, Holly was introduced to music when he attended local public schools. He later attended Juilliard, where he concentrated on the instrument of his choice: the tuba.
That instrument’s irregular use in popular classical scores provided an opportunity, Holly says. “The tuba is a wonderful instrument to play if you’re going to be a conductor. You get to sit back and watch the rest of the orchestra and know what’s going on. When I wasn’t playing, I was reading the scores.”
Playing is what makes a symphony, but that playing has been diminished with the adjustments to scheduling and rehearsals. “Rehearsals happen when there’s a concert, and there are usually three rehearsals per concert.”
Funding also affects the ability to pay professional musicians, and Holly would like to do more to support the 65 musicians who are in the orchestra, especially since those musicians are part of the greater community.
“They come from different places. Some live in the greater Trenton area, such as Hamilton, Yardley, and Princeton. Some come from further away, New Brunswick and the North Philadelphia areas, places reasonably close to Trenton,” says Holly.
No matter where the musicians come from, this New Year’s Eve will bring them back to downtown Trenton, where they will join Katona, Broadway performer Alison Fraser, and pianist Steven Ryan for a program of symphonic, stage, and screen musical favorites.
Fraser has appeared in concerts at Carnegie Hall, the White House, Symphony Space, and other venues. She is a two-time Tony Award nominee for “The Secret Garden” and “Romance/Romance” and a Drama Desk Award nominee for “The Secret Garden.”
Ryan has performed as a keyboardist with most of the major orchestras in New York City, including members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He has played celesta with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, piano with the Dessoff Choirs, synthesizer with the Moody Blues rock band, and in the Princeton Symphony’s chamber music series.
The program features George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” arranged for orchestra and piano, and the premiere of a Gershwin medley for voice and orchestra arranged by John McDaniel, Katona, and Fraser. Also on the program are a medley of movie themes by John Williams, waltz selections by Johann Strauss, orchestral selections from “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story,” and the “Fantasy for the New Year” by the late area composer Bill Holcombe
Of the New Year’s Eve presence of the Trenton Symphony, Holly says, “It’s remarkable that there is an orchestra in Trenton. That’s because of the War Memorial. It’s such a beautiful place.”
About his hopes for the concert and their full orchestra presence, Holly says, “We hope that lots of people come. And we’re hoping that people who do come and will come back in the future. We hope that people will appreciate the War Memorial and come to all sorts of events there. The main focus of any performance organization is to develop an audience, to get people to come to hear music of different kinds.”
As with a lot of managers or arts organizations, he is probably also hoping for a good new year.
New Year’s Eve Concert, Greater Trenton Symphony Association, Patriot’s Theater at the War Memorial, 1 Memorial Drive, Trenton. Monday, December 31, 8 p.m. $25-$65. 609-396-5522 or www.trentixnj.com.