Cameron Massey • At the Helm of Music, Magic & Innovation

An In-Depth Conversation With the New Director of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra On Opening the Doors of Classical Music to a New Generation While Honoring the Fundamentals of a Nearly 90 Year Legacy

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 940   By: Robert E Martin

12th January, 2023     0

The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra has always enjoyed a colorful and formidable history of musical innovation. Created as a project of the Saginaw Department of Parks and Recreation back in  1935, they have performed an annual concert series ever since. A fully-professional ensemble which draws its members from throughout Michigan, in addition to its classical concerts the Orchestra has produced a wide variety of chamber, pops, educational, and historical concerts, as well as opera, ballet, and modern dance.

Most importantly, it has enjoyed a legacy of storied and gifted conductors  over its 88 years of performances - from Samuel Jones who wrote ‘Overture for a City’ that incorporated a six-note phrase from Lefty Frizzell’s popular hit of that era, Saginaw, Michigan, up through Maestro Leo Najar who established the Christmas Pops Concert back in 1980 that has become an annual tradition while. also treading new ground by performing the works of composers such as Phillip Glass and collaborating with artists such Dick Wagner and Stewart Francke - the notion of innovation and connection with audiences of all ages has always driven the orchestra forward in delightful and remarkable ways.

Nearly 5,000 community performers — over half of whom are children — have shared the stage with the Orchestra in performances over the years. And there is little doubt that the SBSO has established a proud legacy of providing quality musicianship, innovative programming, and excellent educational experiences for the residents throughout  the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Back in late October of last year the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra announced that Cameron Massey would assume the reins as their new Executive Director following the departure of former director Bonnie VanVoorhees back in June. 

After serving on their Board for two years, Cameron also served as Interim Director, acted as Marketing Coordinator. and also served as an avid volunteer for the organization since 2020.  “The board gave its unanimous support to Cameron as our Executive Director,” remarked Board President Deborah Huntley. “He has done a great job in the interim role and his enthusiasm and commitment to the SBSO are very evident. We are all looking forward to working together to support this outstanding orchestra.”

Although born in Southern California, Cameron says he grew up and was raised mostly in Midland, which gave him his first real exposure to the wonders of symphonic orchestral music.  “I didn’t share the same level of affluence a lot of my peers did, so growing up in Midland it was easy to feel that I didn’t fit right in,” he reflects.  “Fortunately, I had a girlfriend that I was dating in high school who’s Mom sat on the Board of Directors for the Midland Symphony Orchestra, and she would give us her complimentary tickets, which afforded my first real exposure to live symphonic music.”

“For those two-hours I actually felt like I was on the same level as everyone else; and coming out of those concerts left me feeling enriched and like a better version of myself. It was something that really connected with me,” he continues.

Back during the 2019-20 season, Cameron started working with the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, assisting them with marketing and community outreach. “I was working with a lot of local companies and following a lot of the activity downtown with the Saginaw Business Incubator, which has a lot of amazing things going on,” he explains. I was looking for ways to tap into that entrepreneurial spirit so went online to volunteer my time to the SBSO, who immediately responded back. Being a classic music fan for much of my life, that was the door of opportunity that opened.”

“I signed up with the audience development committee and was all revved up with these bright ideas and plans to get people into the seats, so after presenting my ideas and get the ball rolling, on the way home from that meeting I started hearing about COVID on the radio, and the next day we had to shut down the season and go virtual. My biggest wish is that I’d gotten involved sooner so I had a better perspective on how things worked Pre-COVID, because my main experience was gained during the lockdowns, so it was a case of trial by fire.”

While his main interest was in film scores and a little bit of Wagner, Cameron says that growing up he was into Skateboard Punk music.  “That being said, I was a huge Lord of the Rings fan and that soundtrack (by Canadian composer Howard Leslie Shore) was musically complex, with certain themes winding in and out of individual pieces to reinforce motifs and emotion, so that got me interested in classical music.”

“Danny Elfman and John Williams also drew me in; and what I discovered is that a lot of people are fans of classical music that don’t even know it!  A good example is the Star Wars theme, which is something that sticks in a lot of peoples’ heads - it’s universal in the sense you don’t need to speak the language of classic music for it to strike and appeal to you.  And what I also love about the orchestra is that for two hours everyone in the theatre is one community, all from different backgrounds, sharing that experience.”

One of the biggest challenges involved with programming classical music involves balancing the ‘Top 20 Classics’ of timeless works by composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach (the Three ‘B’s’) with more contemporary works targeted at drawing younger audiences, so what is Cameron’s strategy for blending the old with the new?

“I find that people in college and older tend to take more care in things they consume and take more interest in fine art, film, and music,” reflects Cameron. “That helps when it comes to balancing between what people recognize and the more new and experimental works. You can’t keep doing the same familiar compositions over and over, so it’s important to be innovating in every art form.”

“Our esteemed Maestro Fouad Fakhouri has done a phenomenal job at achieving this balance, beginning our current season featuring ‘Music on the Cutting Edge’, which was a concert consisting entirely of contemporary classical music, while working more familiar and popular symphonic works throughout the season. You never know where the next Beethoven’s 5th Symphony will come from, so mainly we want people to leave these concerts feeling enriched, which is done through innovation.  One of my main goals right now is reach out, network, and make people understand that the SBSO is not just another non-profit organization, but consists of a passionate assortment of musicians and individuals.”

Indeed, the SBSO’s next concert, Music To Celebrate: A Tribute to Black Composers, will be happening on Saturday, February 4th at 8:00 PM. Over the last century, many black composers have been at the forefront of creating distinctively Black styles of American music, whether that be Blues, Jazz, or Motown, so this performance will honor composers from all these traditions.   Julia Perry’s Short Piece for Orchestra (1943) is full of exciting musical contrasts, and this will followed by orchestral arrangements of popular standards - one group by Duke Ellington, another by Louis Armstrong, and a final set of Motown hits. The showcase feature of this evening will be  William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930), in which the composer merges a formal symphonic structure with the rhythms and idioms of blues and jazz.

Nest up on Saturday, March 4th, will be Romantic Reflections, which will focus on Romanticism in music that tapes many shapes, including lush harmonies and a rich orchestral sound, along with extremes of musical expression.  This program will include works by Tchaikovsky, along with a style of music called Sturm & Drang (Storm & Stress) that was developed in the 111th Century, and concluding with the central piece which will be Anton Bruckner’s Symphony #4. ‘Romantic’, which has broad dimensions and an expansive form.

And closing out the season on April 1st will be a performance of what I certainly the most famous symphony of all time, Beethoven’s Immortal 5th Symphony.

“There are thousands of cities larger than Saginaw and Bay City with higher population densities and bigger economies  that don’t have orchestras,” continues Cameron, “so people need to realize how fortunate we are to have one that draws from the best pool of musicians performing throughout the state.” 

“That’s part of the reason that Saginaw appealed to me - it has such a go-getter attitude about making things happen and pushing things through. Much of what happens isn’t always financed by big corporations but by passionate people binding together to make it happen.  The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra is not just an orchestra - it’s a community outlet that for nearly 88 years now has made a significant difference, which to me is as equally amazing as it is beautiful.”

In terms of his top goals for the SBSO, number one is public awareness. “My primary goal is to make sure everyone in Saginaw, Bay City, and Frankenmuth knows we are here for them and part of this community. So many younger people will say to me, ‘I didn’t know we had an orchestra’, and because we have a lot of college students coming into the population of the region, I want to make sure everyone knows about us and understands that regardless of income, you don’t need to be wealthy to go out for a major night of entertainment.”

“My second goal is to invigorate the region through exciting programming,” stresses Cameron. “We exist because of community support and also because the community makes us who we are. There’s a lot of reasons that the SBSO is important to Saginaw and unfortunately sometimes the conversations about Saginaw are not always positive; but the issues we face will never be fixed if people under-value the amazing resources we do have.”

“What I find inspiring is all the numerous arts organizations  throughout our region that bring people into town and keep them coming back,” he continues. “It’s because of highly motivated and driven people that Saginaw is what it is and why we have the incredible arts and performance culture that we do here.  People really care about the arts and my goal is to become a fulcrum in the midst of this.”

The Saginaw Bay Youth Orchestra is also an important component, especially with many of the schools stopping music programs.  According to Cameron, they practice at SVSU and will be staging three or four concerts this year at The Temple Theatre.  “The Youth Orchestra rehearse eight times for each concert and to see those kids and the dedication they have is something beautiful that give me so much hope - not just for music, for the future in general - because you see these kids become a part of something bigger than themselves.

 “The orchestra itself is greater than the sum of its parts,” concludes Cameron, “and the same ideas that make an orchestra great apply to the City of Saginaw.

“I believe in this orchestra, and the power of music,” he concludes.  “I’m excited for this opportunity to serve the orchestra that has given me so much, and to give back. The right notes in the right places can change someone’s life, and I look forward to continuing working with the orchestra to bring breathtaking symphonic music to all in the Great Lakes Region.”

The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra’s next performance of ‘Music to Celebrate! • A Tribute to Black Composer’ will happen on Saturday, February 4th at The Temple Theatre in Downtown Saginaw at 8:00 PM.  General admission ticket start as low as $15.00 for adults and can be purchased by visiting saginawbayorchestra.com

 

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