Music of Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra Being Enjoyed at State Theatre Again, Thanks to Acoustic Shells
April 09, 2018 7:00 AM
by Nadine Kofman, Town&Gown
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This month concludes a surprising revival season of orchestral music at The State Theatre. The Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra has added the beats, if you will, of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, etc., to a stage known primarily for uplifting live rock, pop, blues, jazz, folk, etc.

This harkens back to an original association.

“We love that the PCO has come home to The State Theatre. They help us fulfill our [community service] mission, plus they sound wonderful in our venue,” says State Theatre executive director Karen Gregg.

When the theatre reopened in 2006, the then-Pennsylvania Centre Orchestra (its middle name has waffled a bit) performed as the theatre’s resident orchestra. During the premiere season, under the baton of esteemed founding conductor Douglas Meyer, an acoustical problem emerged and, at the end of the season, PCO exited. Its symphonic strains went off to Mount Nittany Middle School, Schwab Auditorium on campus and, as schedules permitted, to other venues. As now, its outreach concerts continued.

The general observation during that first season was: “We can’t hear ourselves or each other play.” And, adds PCO executive director Susan Kroeker, “The audience was also not impressed with the sound.”

For the current season – which concludes Sunday, April 22, at 3 p.m. with The French Connection featuring two concerti appearances by local professional cellist Kim Cook – the placement of PCO’s rented acoustic shells essentially solves the problem.

Since The State Theatre doesn’t own any or have the space to store the shells (each is more than 15 feet tall with a foldable 54-inch canopy), they have been rented from The Altoona Symphony Orchestra. Prior to each concert’s dress rehearsal, six shells are wheeled from the delivery truck to the theatre’s stage door in Calder Way (for most of its life termed Calder Alley) and lifted mechanically onto the stage, where a State Theatre crew sets them up.

They’re taken away immediately after each concert. Once, because of a timing problem, they had to be wheeled for pickup around the corner at the PCO office, Suite D of the Fraser Street mini-mall, 119 S. Fraser St.

To say the least, acoustic correction hasn’t happened overnight. 

“We worked for two years to see if we could find anyone in the region who would be willing to rent the acoustic shells, deliver them for the performance and take them away afterwards,” says The State Theatre’s executive director at the time, Greg Ray. “Last season, Sarah Decker (operations director previously) had a connection with The Altoona Symphony and brought us together.”

Not a fait accompli even now. “We’re still doing some tweaking,” says Kroeker.

The latest shell shift can be seen on April 22, when award-winning international conductor Yaniv Attar concludes his third PCO season, conducting works by Mozart, Saint-Saens, Ravel, and Couperin.

“I love chamber repertory,” says Attar, 39, a native of Israel who relocated to this country 21 years ago. “There are more big symphony orchestras in the world than chamber orchestras,” he says. A rarer breed in this country, “You will find many more chamber orchestras in Europe.”

When Meyer retired after 24 years, Attar became the second music director since PCO began playing 28 years ago. Under his leadership, “Centre” was changed back to “Chamber.”

“I love the size of the (35-musician) PCO.” It’s more intimate than the 80-instrumentalist orchestra he’s conducted for five years back home in Bellingham, Washington, subsequent to a stint as assistant conductor of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He studied at Juilliard in New York and at London’s Royal College of Music, for which he was associate conductor and co-founder of the Tempus Chamber Orchestra. His doctorate is from McGill University in Montreal.

“Now,” Attar says, “I have two orchestras and two children” – 8-year-old violinist Jonah and 11-month-old Lyla. Their mother, Meredith (a Youngstown, Ohio, native living in New York when the two met), teaches fourth-grade in Bellingham; their father, who plays classical guitar when he can, has a habit of flying from one kid-friendly college town to another.

When crossing the country to come here five times a year, “It takes me a whole day.” The trip – beginning with a drive to Seattle to catch a flight to Detroit that’s coming to State College – occurs on a Wednesday, followed by rehearsals Thursday through Saturday, the Sunday afternoon concert, then a Monday return trip.

Echoing Attar’s two orchestras, the State College/Bellefonte area boasts both this chamber group and a full orchestra – the more than 50-year-old Nittany Valley Symphony. While PCO is touted as the only all-professional orchestra in this part of the state, the 80-some member Nittany Valley Symphony is a community group, made-up of professional principal players alongside local musicians.

Unsurprisingly, NVS needs a larger stage than the one at The State Theatre. A future one for arts groups is being talked about. When and if the Nittany Performing Arts Centre is built, PCO might move there, but at the moment, it’s having a joyous revival.

“Attendance” says Kroeker, “is up 20 percent since moving to The State Theatre.” With its location and importance, observes the conductor, The State Theatre “has increased our visibility tremendously,” thereby reinforcing the “prestige” of PCO.

Nadine Kofman is a native Centre Countian and historian.


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