Institutional News, Local Impact

Emotional Intuition and the Sage City Symphony

Calabro, Finckel, and 50 Years of Music

Image of the Sage City Orchestra

The Sage City Symphony’s 50th anniversary concert, which doubles as a celebration of Michael Finckel’s 30 years as director, will be held at 4:00 pm on Sunday, May 21 at Greenwall Auditorium in the VAPA Building at Bennington College.  

Director Michael Finckel’s most powerful memory from the Sage City Symphony’s fifty-year history unfolded at the bedside of the symphony’s founding conductor, Louis Calabro, who was in hospital with cancer. Finckel had gone to him for advice in advance of conducting his first concert for the symphony. 

“That particular concert, we were playing [Calabro’s] Third Symphony,” said Finckel. “And there are some sections in the middle of the piece that have fairly complicated compound meters.” 

Taking an interview from his home on the northern edge of New York City, Finckel counts rhythmically to illustrate the complexity. He remembers asking Calabro, “‘How do I conduct this, Lou?  How would you conduct it?” 

“He said, and I'll never forget this,”  Finckel lowered his voice to evoke Calabro, whose voice was low and gravelly on account of his recent surgery. “He said, ‘You know, Mike, you gotta feel it.’  This has stuck with me, because it clearly applies to all music.  

Deep intuitive emotion runs through many of the stories in the Symphony’s history, which is somewhat like that of a very large family. 

The First Conductor

Calabro’s childhood and young adulthood is reminiscent of a yet-unwritten Dickensian tale set in Brooklyn. It includes an abusive orphanage, finding refuge playing drums in the orphanage band, and escaping to the safety of his grandmother’s home. Teased for his heavy accent, Calabro dropped out of school in 8th grade and played with jazz bands in the city until he joined the Army to serve as a paratrooper in World War II. 

After the war, he found his way to Juilliard, where he studied composition under Vincent Persichetti. In fact, Calabro dedicated his Third Symphony, the one Finckel had asked him how to conduct, to Persichetti, who Finckel calls, “a wonderful composer.”

Calabro was in Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship when he met Otto Leuning, a renowned American composer who was also among the founding music faculty at Bennington College. Leuning received word that one of his colleagues on the faculty had died during the winter term. They needed a replacement. “Otto wrote to the college and recommended Lou to be hired,” Finckel recounted. “And that's how he got to Bennington”

Leuning was also involved in generating the idea for the local all-volunteer orchestra that would become the Sage City Symphony. It emerged at a dinner party at John McCullough's house, remembers Christine Graham, Calabro’s wife of many years. Calabro, Graham, Luening, and others talked about music and community. The dinner conversation continued until 4 am. 

“And so we just started daydreaming at that dinner about having a community orchestra,” Graham said. “When Lou and I got home, we said, ‘you know, we could do this.’” She began organizing that very day. “I can remember exactly where I was, sitting on a kitchen stool, calling every musician I knew to see if they would come to a first rehearsal.” 

They met at the gymnasium at the Village School in North Bennington.  “We sight read some Mozart, and that sounded pretty good,” Graham recounted. “So we decided we'd do it. And that was really the start of the orchestra. Lou was the conductor, and I was the manager. The first concert was in ’73.”

From the very beginning, the orchestra commissioned composers for every concert. “This is becoming much more commonplace in the United States these days,” said Graham. “But at the time that we did it, even though we were a teensy weensy little volunteer orchestra, we were the only ones in the country doing this. It was a radical concept at that time.” 

For the pivotal role Leuning had played in recruiting Calabro and in starting the symphony, the orchestra chose him to be their first commissioned composer. 

Passing the Baton

Finckel’s history with the orchestra dates almost back to its beginning. His parents had been music faculty at Bennington College. He grew up across the street from U. S. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov and “all the extraordinary characters associated with the visual arts and dance.”  “It was, is, a magnificent arts colony,” Finckel said. “To this day, I look back and say, ‘Boy, were we lucky to grow up there.’ It was quite a community, and it lives on.” 

As a young professional, Finckel had played cello in the orchestra.  Later, having studied composition with Calabro and Henry Brant, he wrote music for the orchestra, and also served as a soloist and guest conductor. So he was a logical choice to succeed Calabro when he passed away in 1991.

“At the time Lou died, you knew, he was the founder, and he was the conductor, and he was beloved,” Graham said. “It was not at all clear that the orchestra would continue. Mike has not only kept it alive, and I hope that Lou doesn't hear me saying this, but he has made it a much better orchestra as well.”

Finckel credits the musicians, especially the strong players as the leaders of sections. “We have this very powerful core that can sight read passionately, even through some of the most complicated music,” Finckel said. “And that really helps carry the orchestra strongly forward.” 

Though many are from the Bennington area, the players are attracted from other nearby community orchestras—including those in Pittsfield, Rutland, Brattleboro, and the Albany area—to play ambitious pieces.  “There's a little Brahms and Beethoven thrown in there, but the Sage City Symphony has never been afraid to stretch beyond its ability,” Graham said.  “And most of the time it really comes through.”

Finckel himself drives from New York City every Sunday to conduct and rehearse. He can practically do the three-hour drive in his sleep, he says, and relishes the expansive view from the highway just outside of town, the one that indicates he has arrived. “When I come up over that overpass into Bennington and see the view of the college and the mountains spread out, I say, ‘Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Every inch of that trip was worth it.’”

The orchestra is very fortunate to have had a close relationship with Bennington College throughout the years. The college has provided equipment, storage, and rehearsal and concert space free of charge. In return Bennington faculty and student compositions are regularly performed.   

Traditionally, nearby towns have allocated modest funds to support the orchestra every year. Those contributions along with many donations from devoted listeners and players, have allowed the orchestra to commission works, rent music, and print programs. As ever, the concerts are free and open to all. 

The Sage City Symphony’s 50th anniversary concert, which doubles as a celebration of Finckel’s 30 years as director, will be held at 4:00 pm on Sunday, May 21 at Greenwall Auditorium in the VAPA Building at Bennington College. The program will include “Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a,” by Johannes Brahms; “2020: Insidiodyssey,” by Joan Devoe; and “The Swan of Tuonela,” by Jean Sibelius featuring the orchestra’s principal oboist, Lyndon Moors as english horn soloist.  

As a nod to the orchestra’s rich emotional past, they will close the program with Louis Calabro’s “Symphony No. 3 in One Movement.” This piece has emerged at key moments throughout the orchestra’s history. It was the one written in honor of Persichetti, Calabro’s teacher at Julliard. It is the same piece Finckel asked the orchestra’s founding director about before conducting his first concert with the symphony. And now, it will commemorate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary.