'The crown jewel of the arts'

Photo by Ted YoakumLa Porte County Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Tim King shares a photo from one of the orchestra's recent children's concert with members of the Rotary Club of La Porte on Monday. King talked more about the group's upcoming season opener, which takes place Saturday at the La Porte Civic Auditorium.

La PORTE — With more than three decades of experience leading and managing top-notch orchestras, Rolling Prairie's Tim King knows a thing or two about music.

So, after moving to La Porte County in 2013, he was a bit skeptical when La Porte's Leigh and Marcia Morris invited him to a performance of the community's premier musicians, La Porte County Symphony Orchestra.

"The very first thing on my mind was, 'Oh my gosh, I'm about to hear a really bad high school band,'" King recalled.

The orchestra's exceptional musical talents defied his meager expectations, however, instantly turning him from a doubter to a believer. 

The fact La Porte — a city the fraction the size of the metropolises where most orchestras reside — hosts such a collection of mavens is one reason why King got involved with the LCSO, he said.

Now on his second stint as the orchestra's executive director, the Rolling Prairie man is making it a priority to see that others fall in love with the group's sound, just as he did six years ago.

"An orchestra in any community should be considered the crown jewel of the arts, whether it be Chicago or La Porte," King said. "However...I can tell you that I have not felt that the community feels that way all the time about the LCSO."

With Saturday marking the beginning of the orchestra's 47th season, now is the perfect time for the uninitiated to hear what they've been missing, King said. 

King talked about this weekend's debut and the history of the performing arts organization during his presentation to the Rotary Club of La Porte this week. Rotarian Leigh Morris — chair of the LCSO board of directors and the man who introduced King to the group years ago — invited the director to speak to the service club during its weekly meeting at the Blue Heron Inn Monday afternoon.

A native of Kentucky, King enjoyed a 32-year career in fine arts administration in his home state, including a five-year stint as executive director of the Louisville Orchestra before moving to La Porte County.

While he intended to retire after moving north, King instead accepted a position as the LCSO's executive director in 2015, serving for a nine-month stint, he said. He returned to lead the organization in December 2018, and intends to stay on at least until the orchestra finishes its search for a new music director, he said.

The LCSO — initially comprised solely of volunteer musicians — performed its first concert in 1972, operating on a $3,000 budget in its first year. 

Today, the orchestra has a roster of 60 paid musicians hailing from seven counties, with an annual budget of more than $300,000, King said. While significantly more expensive to operate now compared to 47 years ago, the LCSO's ledger is still incredibly small in the orchestra world — for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra requires $100 million per year to run, King said.

"The LCSO's musicians...play way above their pay grade," the director said. "We have musicians who play just for the sheer love of it because we certainly can't afford to pay them what they're worth."

The orchestra is currently in the midst of a two-year-long search for a new music director to replace Philip Bauman, who resigned from the position in 2018 after 24 years at the conductor's podium, King said. 

This past season, three of the six finalists for the position — Russell Ger, Maria Diaz Garcia and Alexander Platt — got a chance to lead the orchestra. The trio each conducted a separate subscription series concert at the La Porte Civic Auditorium, with LCSO leaders and audiences evaluating their performance.

For the upcoming 2019-20 season, the last three candidates will get their shot with the baton:

• For this Saturday's opening performance at the La Porte Civic, Kansas' Carolyn Watson will lead the orchestra through a program titled "Dance!/Veteran's Tribute." The concert will include pieces by Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky as well as performances of "America, the Beautiful" and "The Armed Forces Salute."

• For the orchestra's March 15 show at Michigan City's Holdcraft Performing Arts Center, Indiana's Wilbur Lin will serve as maestro. The group will perform Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in celebration of the famed composer's 250th birthday, as well as other yet-to-be-determined pieces.

• During LCSO's April 25 concert at La Porte Civic, Michigan's Christopher Fashun will take the podium and lead the orchestra through selections from "The Great American Song Book." Veteran Broadway performer Doug LaBrecque, a friend of Fashun, will lend his vocal talents during the show.

With each of the conductors possessing a wealth of talent and education, audiences should be in for quite an experience this upcoming season, King said.

"The music director search has had a very, very positive effect on our orchestra," King said. "They've stepped up [their performances] quite a bit."

These performances are just a few of the appearances LCSO has on its calendar this upcoming season, however.

Next fall, the orchestra will also host its 15th rendition of its popular Hoosier Star event. 

Every year, local singers get a chance to perform alongside the orchestra during the American Idol-style competition. A panel of judges, along with an audience vote, determine the top vocalists from the adult and youth divisions, who receive cash prizes.

Michigan City's Joe Stewart and Chesterton High School student Rebecca Lane took home the top spots from the 2019 Hoosier Star, which took place in September.

"We are still finding amazing talent," King said of the competition. "This year's talent was as good as I've heard anywhere."

LCSO also hosts an annual children's concert at the La Porte Civic. Started 31 years ago, the event allows thousands of students from across the region to experience the power of live orchestral music, King said.

Several Rotarians shared some testimonies of their own on the impact the orchestra's music has had on them.

Brett Binversie, director of the La Porte Civic, said he was blown away the first time he attended an LCSO concert just before he took over at the local auditorium five years ago.

"You just would not think that a community our size is going to have a symphony this good," Binversie said.

Those interested in learning more about the upcoming LCSO season may call (219) 362-9020 or visit lcso.net.

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