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Holly & GTSO: Back Home

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 3, 1999. All rights reserved.

A sense of place and patriotism, of musical tradition

and civic history, infuse the pair of performances that the Greater

Trenton Symphony Orchestra (GTSO) gives on Sunday, March 7, at 3 and

7 p.m., to mark the rededication of the Trenton War Memorial Auditorium.

This is the first public concert to take place at the renovated hall

since it was officially reopened in January. John Peter Holly is music

director for the orchestra that has called the War Memorial home for

more than 30 years.

The GTSO kicks off a week of celebratory concerts marking the reopening

of the War Memorial. While the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra turns

to musical stars for its gala return to the War Memorial on Wednesday,

March 10 (see page 38), and Boheme Opera celebrates by presenting

a special gala opera program with Martin Bookspan on Saturday, March

13, the GTSO focuses on civic pride, including ceremony, words, and


Even without the patriotic bunting, the musical program is designed

to evoke a flush of pleasure at belonging to a society that extends

beyond the War Memorial, beyond Trenton, beyond New Jersey, and beyond

the 20th century. The tightly-knit programming for the GTSO concert

reaches for every nerve that might be touched on such an occasion.

The program opens with a ceremonial presentation of colors accompanied

by a lyrical fanfare for orchestra by Michael Conway Baker. The Schola

Cantorum Choir of Westminster Choir College of Rider University contributes

its singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Beethoven’s "Consecration

of the House Overture," a work traditionally performed at the

opening of concert halls throughout the world since 1822, is included.

Charles D. Carleton Sr., of Atco, New Jersey, veteran of World War

I and World War II, and now 100 years old, narrates the poem "In

Flanders Fields" to the accompaniment of Samuel Barber’s "Adagio

for Strings."

Bass Jerome Hines turns attention to the War Memorial building itself

by singing in Michael Sammes’ musical setting of Laurence Binyon’s

poem "For the Fallen," which is inscribed in stone above the

building’s ballroom entrance.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

The Westminster Schola Cantorum, led by director Heather Buchanan,

performs the concluding movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ "Dona

Nobis Pacem." The choral text begins with the biblical quotation,

"Nation shall not take up sword against nation." Hines concludes

the first part of the program, narrating Abraham Lincoln’s words in

a performance of Aaron Copland’s "Lincoln Portrait."

The second half of the program consists of Howard Hanson’s cantata

"Song of Democracy," set to excerpts from poems of Walt Whitman,

and Tchaikovsky’s "1812 Overture," in a version that includes

full orchestra, choir, and artillery. An encore, John Philip Sousa’s

march "Stars and Stripes Forever" has already been planned.

This program is not merely a matter of touching all bases. It’s like

running around the infield twice.

The program bears the mark of GTSO’s John Peter Holly,

a man who knows how to keep a purpose within his sights. His enterprises

tend to go beyond his most optimistic expectations. It was Holly who

spotlighted the stalled state of construction work on the War Memorial

by repeatedly turning up at public meetings with four boxes stuffed

with 2,000 letters urging the governor to see that the work be carried

forward. The grass roots response to his suggestion in the program

booklet for the concert of New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1995, inundated

him with more letters than he could handle (U.S. 1, December 9, 1998),

and with the reopening of the War Memorial in the offing, GTSO expanded.

Because of the demand, the orchestra has added extra performances

to its subscription series. The number of GTSO subscribers now is

more than 1,600, about three times what it has been in the recent


Holly, 43, is in his ninth season at GTSO. He traces his entry into

conducting back to an unfortunate childhood experience. Growing up

in Hackensack in the 1960s, Holly, at about age 5, used to watch Claude

Kirschner dressed as a bandmaster, conducting into the camera as a

piece called "Entry of the Gladiators" played. "It’s one

of those pieces that everybody knows," Holly says, and hums it.

He’s right. It’s the archtypical circus tune, and was the introduction

to Claude Kirschner’s Loony Tunes Circus, a big black-and-white attraction

in its day.

"Mr. Kirschner made local appearances at shopping malls to promote

the show. He would have 8 or 10 players with him, playing `Entry of

the Gladiators.’ He wanted all the kids to come up on stage, and conduct

for 10 seconds. When I was next in line the piece ended, and I didn’t

get my chance. It was like `Citizen Kane’ when the boy was called

indoors and not allowed to play with his sled, Rosebud. It drove his

entire career. This was my Rosebud."

In 1968, when Holly was 13, the family moved to Franklin Lakes. "I

was a new kid in a regional high school," Holly says. "It

seemed like band was the most desirable group to start in as new kid.

I played guitar, so I read music. Everybody played the guitar in the

’60s, but I played classical guitar, which was strange. I wanted to

play oboe but when I told the band director that, he said, `You can

play oboe, but you’ll be the only boy.’ At 14 that matters. You want

to fit in as much as possible. I asked what he needed, and he said

tuba. I’m still at it."

Holly went on to study choral directing and voice at

Oberlin conservatory, where he found one orchestra and four or five

tuba players. In search of a opportunity, Holly transferred to New

York’s Juilliard School where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s

degrees. At Juilliard he studied tuba with Joseph Novotny, the tuba

player of the New York Philharmonic, and pursued conducting.

"Not every piece has tuba part," Holly notes. "Before

1860 there were none at all. Mozart and Beethoven were pre-tuba. Only

one of Brahms’ four symphonies has a tuba part. So the tuba section

is a good place to learn about the orchestra. You’re sitting in back

and a lot of the time you’re not playing. In Dvorak’s `New World Symphony’

the tuba plays only in the second movement, and it has 14 notes. To

make it worse, it’s marked pianissimo and is played in unison

with the bass trombone. You have to just sit through the other movements.

I used to bring scores to rehearsals to fill the time and to follow

the music." Sitting in the back of the orchestra, Holly was on

the way to a position as a conductor.

His route to the GTSO was equally indirect. He worked both as a freelance

musician and conductor, and as a writer. For 10 years, beginning with

his graduation from Juilliard in 1977, he was editorial assistant

to Joseph Machlis, author of "The Enjoyment of Music," and

helped prepare new editions of Machlis’ texts. In 1989-’90, when the

New Brunswick Cultural Center was in its first season, Holly was its

interim marketing director.

Holly’s marketing triumph, which secured him the New Brunswick job,

came when Jerome Hines, who is also a producer, scheduled Mozart’s

"Magic Flute" for two Newark performances, fighting the odds

in two ways: "Magic Flute" is not the most popular Mozart

opera, and its performances were set for two difficult dates, a Saturday

New Years Eve and Monday, January 2.

"It was my first marketing experience," Holly says, "and

I got a crash course in marketing from Rob Gold. I did everything

he told me, and everything worked out. As result, the performances

became known as `the Magic Fluke,’ and everybody started calling me

to do their marketing."

In the 1990-’91 season Holly went to GTSO as executive director. "The

jump from marketing director to executive director is a natural one,"

he says. "Then during my first year our conductor left in mid-season.

There were guest conductors, and I conducted a few concerts. Finally,

the board thought it would be economical if one person was paid, instead

of two. Now I am both executive director and conductor." In addition

to his work with GTSO Holly, a resident of Lambertville, had a part-time

appointment at Westminster Choir College, where he taught arts administration.

Holly and GTSO were entrusted with producing two "hard-hat"

concerts in December to test all the systems of the renovated War

Memorial Theater, and then came back again to mount a New Year’s Eve

concert, one of Trenton’s traditional events, a concert followed by

a ballroom gala. Now the orchestra makes it official, and returns

to its home at the War Memorial with another ceremonial flourish.

— Elaine Strauss

War Memorial Rededication Concert, Greater Trenton

Symphony Orchestra , Trenton, 609-394-1338. $15 to $35. Sunday,

March 7, 3 and 7 p.m.

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