Passion Within the Performance – 50 Years of Central Oregon Symphony

Stepping back into the late 1960s, Central Oregon was a vastly different place. Rugged, it was still considered the untamed wild west of America. Populations were sparse, farm land was abundant, and few thought that classical music withstood even a chance of surviving, let alone thriving, in the relatively unknown mill town of Bend.

“If you consider what Central Oregon looked like fifty years ago,” begins Michael Gesme, music director and orchestral conductor for the Central Oregon Symphony (COS), “I think the changes over the past five decades are similar and intertwined. Central Oregon Symphony [began with] a small group of determined musicians making it happen with limited resources and a great vision for the future.”

Gesme, who is also the professor of music at Central Oregon Community College and chair of the department of fine arts and communication, has been at the helm of COS for over twenty years and had notable predecessors such as Jerry Yahna and Charles Heiden.

“Looking at the shelves and opening the desk drawers in my office, I am constantly reminded of the legacy that I inherited and have the privilege of carrying forward,” he reflects.
With its humble roots, the orchestra’s first musical notes rang out in the cafeteria of Pilot Butte Middle School and now play to over 1,400 in the auditorium of Bend High School. As it slowly grew, the talents of these musicians, all volunteers, evolved, strengthening to what presently stands firmly strong as a well renowned orchestra in Oregon.
Gesme continues “today we have a roster of approximately eighty musicians who perform no fewer than 15 concerts per season, including chamber music, children’s concerts and full symphony concerts.”

Linda Wang, photo courtesy of Benjamin Edwards
Linda Wang, photo courtesy of Benjamin Edwards

Joan Hinds, a board member for Central Oregon Symphony Association (COSA), a nonprofit organization that provides logistical and financial support to COS points out, “when my husband and I were considering a move to Oregon, we were thrilled that we had found a place to work, ski, paddle, hike – and even hear great symphonic music! COS adds a top layer to Central Oregon’s appeal.”

With the inception of COSA, it has allowed COS to focus on building their musical repertoire and COSA now takes the “reigns of donor stewardship and outreach.” With COSA’s help, Gesme states, “almost overnight, the COS became a true community ensemble, with community musicians, community support, hosted by the community college. The growth in possibilities was exponential and we have never looked back.”

Gesme is quick to point out that the success of the symphony would not be without the extended contribution of the volunteers that make up this diverse and eclectic group of orchestral members.

“The musicians work their tails off for each performance and the audience members genuinely appreciate the efforts and the results. I have experienced profound kindness and generosity from the musicians in the orchestra and the community members who attend our concerts…I have been conducting the COS for twenty years and I am amazed at how many people play in the orchestra year after year, some for longer than my tenure.”

It seems that passion, a love of classical music and performance is what propels the symphony to continually raise the bar, season after season. As well as sheer talent and practice. The Central Oregon community has definitely noticed, if by the fact that audience numbers keep rising and have well surpassed the 8,000 mark. This can also be attributed to Gesme’s unique knack in making classical music more accessible to younger and newer audiences.

“The reality of the situation is that if we don’t have an audience, we don’t have an orchestra,” he says. “Because there is often a stigma of stuffiness associated with the symphony or the opera, we work hard to get rid of the invisible wall that divides the audience from the stage, engaging them in the process of making music.”
Gesme points to one simple yet affective method, “I love to talk about the music we are going to perform, giving the audience something to listen for (not just to) while the music is happening.”

COS Conductor Michael Gesme, photo courtesy of Benjamin Edwards
COS Conductor Michael Gesme, photo courtesy of Benjamin Edwards

Inspiring creativity and showcasing what is possible in the Central Oregon community is the root of what makes the entire ensemble thrive. Stressing the importance of supporting musicians in the community, Gesme says that the entire 2016-17 season is a celebration of the past and present. In this spirit, he describes this season as “a nod to more than two centuries of orchestral music and musicians… [there is] music that was composed in 1786, music that will be completed in 2017 and numerous points in between.”

Gesme has a hard time choosing what he looks forward to the most, however he states that the May 2017 concerts will be of high importance as they will feature a fusion of violinist Linda Wang and brand new work by James Barnes that was specifically commissioned for the Symphony’s 50th anniversary. “Having them together makes it an exceptionally notable event for me.”

A chance to support the COS comes with a slew of concerts and events and enables the next generation to see firsthand the vital part that the symphony plays in our community.
Gesme adds, “I would hope that we continue to respect the traditions and history of the organization and, at the same time, be open to responsible growth, new ideas and new directions in response to changes in the community. The future holds much promise and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

COS offers a Children’s Concert, Symphony Spotlight recitals, Music in Public Places and Symphony Stars programs.


September 25, 6pm Riverhouse Convention Center.
The Pacific Coast Horns come from LA to entertain at the Symphony’s anniversary kick-off party. The bistro-style supper and show are a tribute to 50 successful years of the COS in the community. Maestro Gesme marks his 21st season with the Symphony.
October 7, 7:30pm Sunriver Observatory.
Adding sparkle to the anniversary celebration is a Starlight Serenade with vocal music and dessert in the Pozzi Education Center followed by stargazing at the Observatory.


Guest artists and programs for the
upcoming season:
FALL — October 22-24. Guest artist 3 Leg Torso plays compositions by Balogh/Von Drehle. The concert includes Polovtsian Dances by Borodin, and Ballet Suite from Le Cid by Massenet.
WINTER — February 11-13, 2017. Guest artist Kotaro Fukuma, piano, performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1; additional works include Mozart’s Overture to The Impresario, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (Italian).
SPRING — May 20-22, 2017. Guest artist Linda Wang, violin, performs Violin Concerto by Brahms. Cascades, a new work by James Barnes commissioned for the anniversary by the Central Oregon Symphony Association will receive its world premiere. The concert will close with the raucous Danzon No.2 by Marquez.
May 21, 2017, 6pm Riverhouse Convention Center. The Anniversary Season concludes with a musicians’ appreciation dinner, where current and past orchestra members and COS donors will gather to celebrate COS’s first 50 years.


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