The MAESTRO\'S TOUCH: How the Discerning Ear of Patrick Flynn Transformed The Saginaw Bay Symphony into a World Class Orchestra

    icon Nov 01, 2007
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"I know  that the 12 notes in each octave and the varieties of rhythm offer me opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust." -

-Igor Stravinsky

When one first encounters Patrick Flynn the first thing one notices is his stature; not merely because of his physical height, but more in the sense of his composure - impeccably British, erudite, yet not the least bit stand-offish, the glint of 'possibility' that Stravinsky references above is evident within the animated enthusiasm that Flynn speaks about the current season of The Saginaw Bay Orchestra, which opened in late October and featured symphonic collaborations with Saginaw's Brush Street, Julie Mulady, and Showtime at the Apollo winner Morgan MacMillon.

Since taking over the helm as Director of The Saginaw Bay Orchestra a few short years ago, Flynn has accomplished a myriad of feats, most notably boosting attendance through his studied understanding of what a symphonic orchestra must be in order to succeed in the 21st Century, polishing the caliber of the orchestra to world-class status, and most important for the future of the orchestra - reaching out to fresh audiences.

In rehearsal during a performance of Bolero, one fully appreciates Flynn's talents and passion as a conductor at play - referencing charts, ears focused upon the blend, much as a chemist would mix parts of ingredients to form a pitch-perfect confection, as his eyes lock into understanding with an oboist as she begins her solo.

This is the Maestro at work.

Predludes & Challenges

In the beginning, the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra was created as a project of the Saginaw Parks & Recreation Division in 1935 and has been going strong ever since. Incorporated as a separate entity in 1953 and, at that time, one of 50 orchestras named charter members of the American Symphony Orchestra League; nearly 5000 community performers have shared the stage with the orchestra over the years.

Hailed by the London Daily Telegraph as "a conductor to treasure", Flynn has won critical praise worldwide for his ability to elicit exciting performances in an enormous range of repertory. Performances with the BBC, the Paris Opera and dozens of worldwide ensembles prompted critic Jean Pierre Barricelli to label him "a musician of seemingly limitless range - the podium equivalent of a poly math."

A former pianist, Flynn's first professional conductor post was as staff conductor for the Australian Opera in 1970, and in 1978 he was engaged by Mikail Baryshnikov to conduct for American Ballet Theater.

In addition to his duties in Saginaw Bay, Flynn is also Music Director of California's Riverside County Philharmonic and guest conducts annually for Symphony Silicon Valley, the Holland Sinfonia and the Finnish National Opera.

And on this particular day that we sit down to chat, he cannot speak enthusiastically enough about his respect for the musicians that he works with in the mid-Michigan area.

"Each year I hear the orchestra getting better," states Flynn. "The playing gets better, people are noticing the improvement, as are the musicians. We tend not to waste one second of rehearsal because for me, it's all about the music, and the musicians prefer that. Those that feel a little threatened by that notion have moved on or retired, and in many ways its like putting a map together - a route to get from Point A to Z."

"As a by-product, another great thing that is happening is that because the standards have gone up considerably, coupled with the support of the good players and music we are performing, some very good musicians are suddenly available to play with the SBSO," continues Flynn. "So yes, I am very pleased with our evolution."

According to Patrick, the rising stature of the orchestra has manifested itself even during the annual audition process. "Musicians understand this is not a teaching situation," states Flynn. "If they can't cut it they realize this quickly, and quietly back out. It's all very friendly. We audition behind a screen, which is what all orchestras do, because the music is what it's about. In fact, I think this is the only profession where it's a real meritocracy - only talent matters, not whether you're young or old or weigh 500 pounds," he laughs. "It's a very good system."

When asked his thoughts about putting the current season together, Patrick's mind becomes focused & purposeful. "Essentially, we have two bases. Today's symphony goer is not somebody that only goes to the symphony. They are people that like music and like Radiohead as much as they enjoy Beethoven."

"The second 'base' consists of those diehard supporters that have very high standards and make going to the symphony a thing. These people are very hard to win over because they have money and will travel to catch a good symphonic performance. They tend to think that 'local' is not good," he continues, "and are very hard to win over."

"I will tell you that this orchestra we've assembled in the Saginaw Valley is absolutely comparable to what you would get in a town orchestra cultivated in Germany or Italy."

"Consequently, to reach these two root audiences, you reach the first group by bringing in top flight soloist, like Chris Martin the Radiohead guy, and then bring in some incredible world renowned soloists for the second part of the evening."

"One thing I do like is that in America there are very few rules except be good about what you do," laughs Patrick. "I can do whatever I want in the Midwest, all they ask is that it be good. I like that."

Is it difficult for Patrick to decide what pieces to include in a particular orchestral season? "No," he quickly states, "I tend to mix it up. Most people don't know if something is classical or pop and there are no divisions anymore. Sometimes new stuff sounds completely out of date and music written 200 years ago sounds completely modern."

"If I play any part of Beethoven to kids between the ages of 10 and 17 they think it's absolutely cool and want to know who this guy is. They act stunned when I tell them he died 200 years ago."

Season of Champions

Patrick is extremely enthusiastic about several highlight performances that remain in the 2007-2008 season for the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra.

On February 9th, Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1, Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Rossini's Overture to William Tell with take the spotlight with 'Music to Smile About'.  Featuring the overture that is well known as the theme from the Lone Ranger, a cello concerto that disarms one with complexities, and the gorgeous melodies in Brahms' most-beloved symphony all will be performed, featuring guest artist John Sharp, The Chicago Symphony's distinguished solo cellist. "Bringing John Sharp in to perform with the Orchestra is a very major deal," notes Patrick. "This should appeal very strongly to the second core audience that we spoke of earlier - those that actively seek out this caliber of performer."

Music for Hunger on March 29th will feature works by Copland, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart, and Bach and benefit the people of Darfur and local food pantries. "The Bishop approached me about doing this and I thought it a wonderful idea," relates Patrick. "Frankly, he's not like any man of the cloth that I've ever met. We'll be featuring guest artists Mijung Trepanier on piano and Hal Grossman on violin. Audience members are invited to bring non-perishable food items which will be donated to local rood relief efforts in Saginaw and Bay Counties."

Closing out the season will be Pipe Dreamin on April 26th - a totally novel approach whereby the audience chooses the music and guest artist John Schwandt will join the orchestra and perform on the Temple Theatre's famous Barton theatre organ, improvising a full symphonic-style work using four themes given by the audience.

"I listened to Dr. Schwandt perform on the pipe organ along to silent movies at midnight that were shown at The Temple last year and was utterly stunned," praises Patrick. "This guy is a genius at improvisation, so I thought it would be fitting and exciting to close the season with a performance where he could take several tunes and turn them into a symphonic piece right on the spot."

When asked to summarize his experiences with The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, Patrick reiterates his pride with the evolution of the organization. "The standard is very high out there and I'm proud of what we've accomplished.  Really, there isn't that much difference between European and American audiences, although I find the big theatres tend to find more relaxed audiences."

"What I like about the Midwest is the fact that unlike New York or California, people are not so uptight and snooty," concludes Patrick. "I went to see Joshua Bell perform a Brahms Concerto in Los Angeles not too long ago and people were not tuned in at all. Here in Saginaw you can see the light in their eyes, which I think has something to do with the size of the town and its self-image. Big City orchestras find it harder to keep up with the times, I think."

"Just recently the Chicago Symphony was making a very big deal about featuring some modern artists and mixing up their shows and talking like they discovered it. I thought, 'My Lord, where have you been the last 25 years!" laughs Patrick.

"I would venture to say that 90 percent of symphonic performances today are done in communities like Saginaw, and most true music lovers hail from towns like this."

"The idea of a symphony being a 'flagship' of a Big Town doesn't apply anymore, and think that is true more with small towns. It isn't like listening to the symphony makes you a better person, but the music and programs have to be appealing. The goal is to draw people in and build audiences."

"My goal is to give them an incredible evening of music at an affordable price. An orchestra this good should not be taken for granted."


For more information on the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra or to purchase tickets phone toll free at 877-754-7469 or visit their website at

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