ECSO's Isabelle Singer bows out after 30 years
Any concert by the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra typically ends with a rising tide of applause and the audience on its feet. Saturday, though, after the final notes of the 2014-15 season echo into the past, the calls for an encore — including from the musicians, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus, and various staff members — will take on a perhaps unprecedented and sustained electricity in New London's Garde Arts Center.
And, hopefully, in response, Isabelle Singer, retiring after 31 years as the ECSO's executive director, will take the stage in acknowledgment of a job well done.
"It's time, that's all," Singer says from behind the desk in her State Street office. It's a few days before the last concert under her purview and she's taking a few minutes to remember and reflect. "When a friend heard I was retiring, he said, 'People retire from jobs. You don't have a job. You have a mission. You can't leave!'" She laughs. "And I said, 'What do I do? Die in this chair?'"
Singer came to the ECSO in 1984 as an assistant to then-executive director Eleanor Bishop and took over the organization two years later. At the time, the ECSO was broke, with a minimal subscription base and no grants or corporate funding.
"It's true that I didn't know a great deal about classical music other than I enjoyed it," Singer says. "But I did know a lot about business and I bring a lot of passion to anything I do. And I believed that would work."
Over three decades, throughout an often grim national climate for arts funding, Singer has overseen the ECSO with dogged commitment and an open and creative approach to fundraising. The organization is in the black and has a bright future.
"I absolutely feel confident about the situation here going forward," Singer says. "We work a year ahead and there are grants and sponsors for next year. (Singer's successor) Caleb Bailey is very talented and committed and has such energy. I feel proud that we're in a very good place."
Few laypersons probably understand the wide-reaching duties of Singer's job. There's the fundraising and grant writing aspect, and constant efforts to secure subscribers. But the sheer magnitude of work required to put on six or seven productions a season is astonishing. Each concert costs roughly $65,000 to $75,000 to stage. The hall must be rented, the musicians and staff contracted, soloists hired, royalties paid out for the music, insurance, and dozens of other line-item bits of minutiae. Plus, in the digital age, folks can now pull up and play ECSO performances from the organization's web site, or hear them on WMNR — and Singer negotiated the rights to both of these developments. In other words, Singer has not only mastered all sorts of tactics and strategies, she has in many ways been a visionary.
There are connections to the actual repertoire, as well.
"There's no question she's made my job easier because of the financial stability," says Toshi Shimada, ECSO's music director/conductor. "The audience might not realize it, but there are some amazing programs we couldn't have done, things like Wagner, if we were in the red. These are artistic concerns that many orchestras have but I don't worry about because we're in the position to pull it off."
Ana Schneider, president of the ECSO's Board of Directors, agrees with Singer's assessment about the orchestra's future.
"Twenty-five years from now, the ECSO will be running smoothly," Schneider says. "It's not just the biggest honor we can do Isabelle, but it's a continuation of what she's achieved and set up. She's been at the helm for all this — and it goes beyond just music. She's a part of the fabric of southeastern Connecticut. Her vision of the ECSO wasn't to focus exclusively on classical music fans but to work through the community at all levels — schools and social services, for example — because she believes the symphony is part of the community."
Part of Singer's legacy will, indeed, emphasize that intimacy and connection — and the fact is, she's been an impassioned and resolute leader who fervently believed in the "community" aspect of a small-town orchestra.
"I go around the country and I've seen orchestras in Chicago, Seattle, New York and Los Angeles," Singer explains. "They're wonderful orchestras and wonderful cities, but I just don't get that intimate feeling we have here. Not every small town can have an orchestra, of course, but we've been making it happen here, and that's a very exciting feeling. Every performance, I can look at the crowd and say I know most of the people in the audience. That's so special."
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio says he's been impressed by Singer since he moved here.
"She brought the symphony to eastern Connecticut in a way that reminded me of my time living in New York City," he says. "We, in New London, have been so lucky to have the ECSO as a cultural institution here. This would not have been possible without Isabelle nurturing her labor of love."
To that end, Singer says the orchestra's marketing attitude has encouraged an "all are welcome" policy. She has myriad warm and funny anecdotes about perhaps unlikely concert-goers who've become regulars, including the butcher who would show up at the box office on the week of performances, wearing his white coat, complete with meat market spatters. "How's your family?" he'd ask, then buy a single ticket.
Singer also remembers one would-be fan who contacted her and expressed anxiety that he wasn't sufficiently educated to attend an orchestral performance.
"I'm a symphony virgin," she remembers him saying. "What do I even wear?"
Singer says she told him, "The good news is you're going to be here. Cover your privates and show up!" She laughs at the memory and says, "Whether it's trying to get grants or sponsorships — or customers — I've always tried to operate in a door-to-door fashion."
Sometimes Singer has had to apply a bit of force to keep things running smoothly, as when a well-meaning but novice high school usher wanted to take a bouquet of flowers to a soloist — and didn't realize that to do so in mid-performance rather than during curtain calls would disrupt the entire program. She did what any self-respecting director of an orchestra would do: ran after the fellow and tackled him before he could get to the stage.
"I fully expected to get drafted by the NFL after that," she says.
At the heart of all of this, of course, is the music, and that's something Singer never forgets.
"Compared to orchestras in New York or Boston, of course, we're at a comparative disadvantage," Singer says, "but we're a very good orchestra. And a lot of musicians who've played here and maybe gone on to bigger cities will tell me that the ECSO was the favorite of their orchestra experiences. It's because we're hands-on and the players are impressed at not just how knowledgeable the audiences are, but also how friendly they are."
The talent pool at the ECSO is substantial. In one part, it's because the job market is so intensely competitive across the country. But there's the fact that many of the orchestra's musicians are simultaneously members of the United States Coast Guard Band — a world-class unit. Regardless of where they come from, the ECSO players are fulfilled, creatively and in terms of lifestyle.
"There is a lot of stability here," she says. "At any concert, there's going to be substitutions because that's the nature of the musician's life. But we have a core of wonderful musicians and a staff and Toshi, and they're all very loyal."
That feeling goes both ways.
"Of course, I have mixed emotions about Isabelle leaving," says Shimada. "She has been our Rock of Gibraltar and kept us running for so many years. I came relatively late in her tenure, but we've had six wonderful years together and I'll miss her greatly. But I also want her to enjoy her retirement. She's earned it."
Orchestra trombonist Mark Weaver, an ECSO veteran of more than 20 years, says, "It's hard to imagine the ECSO would even exist today without Isabelle's tireless efforts. Her dedication and passion for the orchestra's health are second to none. She loves it and its people — and has always believed that, in order to be a great region, southeastern Connecticut needs a great orchestra."
Another warm relationship is that between the ECSO and its "home court," the Garde Arts Center. Singer was a strong advocate in the creation of the Garde and the orchestra's relocation there from New London High School.
In that spirit, Singer's retirement has affected Steve Sigel, the Garde's executive director, in a big way. "I'm still somewhat in denial (about her decision)," he says. "I can't imagine looking out my window and not being able to see her saunter into her office after coming back from Rotary or another errand in her never-ending quest. She's had a great career here." He pauses. "Thirty years! That means she started here when I was having my bar mitzvah! But what an amazing tenure. She kept this wonderful orchestra afloat through great challenges."
On Saturday, then, Singer's biggest challenge may be simply to not get too emotionally overwhelmed. There are tributes in store, of course, along with a bill that includes one of her favorite pieces, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Singer is quick to point out that she and Shimada finalized the season's programs before she decided to retire, so the Orff is a fitting and happy coincidence.
"This has always been a 24/7 proposition, but it's not a job," Singer says. "It's been a joy and a way of life." She laughs and takes a deep breath. "When I first started, I realized that, for the ECSO to work, it needed to be part of the city and the region on a variety of levels. My daughter said, 'I don't like that you can't come when I need you.' Now, of course, she understands completely and she'll be at the Garde Saturday night, holding my hand."
IF YOU GO
Who: Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra with the ECSO Chorus
What: Final concert of the 2014-15 season featuring Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 1. Soloists are Jurate Svedaite, Chris Lucier and Maksim Ivanov
When and where: 8 p.m. Saturday, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
Of special note: this is the symphony's final concert under the leadership of retiring executive director Isabelle Singer
How much: $28.80-$62 with $12 rush tickets for students and active military
For more information: (860) 443-2876, gardearts.org
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