LANSDOWNE — They are making sweet music in the borough. And now, with the release of its first compact disc, its signature organization, the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, is garnering national attention.
The American Prize National Nonprofit Competitions in the Performing Arts has designated the orchestra this year's recipient of the Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of American Music, Community in its instrumental division for its release of American Romantics III on the New Focus label.
The American Prize said this award "recognizes and rewards the best performances of American music by ensembles and individual artists worldwide, based on submitted recordings ... Focused exclusively on works by American composers from any period and in any style, the contest not only judges performances, but in the case of new or unfamiliar works, the music itself."
"It's great to see that we're recognized by a national body," said Reuben Blundell, the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra's Music Director. "I think that the LSO is a really special organization, a special orchestra."
Kevin Lawrence, one of the orchestra's violists, credited Blundell.
"It's a fairly unique prize and a fairly unique award," Lawrence said. "Reuben has brought this type of exposure to the orchestra."
The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1946 as a way for the First Presbyterian Church of Lansdowne to have music. Within five years, the orchestra belonged to the community.
Consisting of 70-plus musicians, the orchestra is comprised of people from many walks of life, from lawyers to doctors who continue to have music as a part of their life.
In fact, Blundell, who became the LSO's music director in 2014 after the 2012 passing of Irving Ludwig, said the Delaware County orchestra has a great warmth and soul.
"It has a really beautiful sound, a great richness, a togetherness they have across the ensemble," he said. "It's not just one person ... They really want to sound the best they can."
Blundell is a part of the conducting faculty at New York's Trinity School and formerly taught at CUNY's Hunter College as an assistant professor for eight years. He's performed in his native Australia, as well as Austria, Chile, Iraq, Japan, Lebanon and the Netherlands. He conducted the New World Symphony in their 2013 John Cage centennial, Making the Right Choices.
He is also music director of the Riverside Orchestra in New York, where he collaborates with a variety of soloists, some from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and New York Philharmonic.
While he was a conducting fellow with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Blundell learned of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
A Philadelphia philanthropist, Fleisher established the Little Symphony Club as a training orchestra open to both sexes and all races for free. To provide music for biweekly rehearsals and annual concerts, Fleisher garnered an extensive collection of music over two decades in the United States and throughout Europe. He then donated his collection to the library, where it remains as the largest lending collection of orchestral performance sets and rare, out-of-print works with more than 23,000 titles.
"A lot of orchestras are looking to do music that is beautiful, that their audiences are likely to appreciate and it's also from a time period that you don't have to pay a rental to a composer anymore because it's really old," he said.
So, he started to look through the Fleisher collection and selected more than 200 pieces as he sat down and imagined in his head what it would sound like.
"You try to do the best you can," he said. "I've always tried to find pieces that have a point of view, that composers aren't holding back."
The first two albums of the American Romantics collection were recorded with session musicians Blundell named the Gowanus Arts Ensemble, string players who would perform their music in between their Broadway show engagements.
Then, with his conviction that the LSO is a symphony orchestra that holds its own and that at its best, music is not competitive or a zero sum game, he placed the third installment here in Delaware County — and the accolades followed and not only with the Ernst Bacon Memorial Award.
Australia's Limelight spoke of individual pieces in the American Romantics III while proclaiming, "Blundell finds a lost musical home where the buffalo roam."
A review in the United Kingdom's Gramophone said the collection was a "splendid" use of the Fleisher collection, even if most of it hints more toward European sounds of Dvorak, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, rather than American.
It also said, "(W)hat Blundell and colleagues offer is never less than appealing and accomplished, and certainly worthy of the occasional appearance on chamber and orchestral programmes."
Limelight also noted the heavy European influence, yet acknowledged the pieces of Carl Busch and Charles Wakefield Cadman as drawing on Native American ideas.
Busch, a native of Denmark, had a profound impact on Midwestern classical music, conducting the first Kansas City Symphony there from 1911-18. When he arrived, the city was home to 2,000 Danish expatriates and would become his longest appointment while teaching at the University of Kansas City.
In American Romantics III, Busch is featured with two pieces, Minnehaha's Vision, written in 1914 and 1916's The Song of Chibiabos, both of which were influenced by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha. Blundell said Busch was often found carrying a copy of the poem with him.
Born in western Pennsylvania, Cadman is responsible for the Thunderbird Suite that stemmed from his time on Omaha reservations in Nebraska as a young man. Limelight called it the CD's "most compelling work, taking Blackfoot Indian melodies as the basis for its three central movements."
The first item on the disc is David Stanley Smith's Prince Hal, An Overture, Op. 31 based on Shakespeare's tale of King Henry V.
"In all of these pieces, there's great variations of feelings," Blundell said. "You listen to music because you want to experience feelings."
In Prince Hal, Blundell explained that listeners are welcomed with a sense of incredible optimism and then go through a transformation as the titular character grows from being a boisterous youngster into being a leader of the people.
Limelight also described the disc's final piece Ludwig Bonvin's Festzug (Festival Procession) as a "blazing finale."
Overall, the review said, "With some fine performances by the orchestra, this is well worth a listen if you're looking for something off the beaten track."
Currently, the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of a project focusing on the work of women composers, including Gwyneth Walker, Linda Robbins Coleman, Margaret Wood-Hill and Esther Balliou Williamson.
"There's a crying need for it," Blundell said, adding that many orchestras have consciously worked to diversify their repertoire after critics and commentators pointed out that no women composers were represented on the seasons' schedules.
"You don't do a year of all French music," Blundell explained. "You don't do a year of all German music. You don't do a year of all male stuff because there's really amazing stuff out there."
Having started this project in April, the music director hopes to have it finished in May with a compact disc ready for the gift-giving season of 2020.
Further, American Romantics, Vol. 3 is available on the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra website at lansdowneso.org as well as on Amazon for $14.74 in CD version and $8.99 in MP3.
And, LSO can also be seen live as its season begins Nov. 3 at Upper Darby Performing Arts Center with Gwyneth Walker's Fanfare, Interlude & Finale, Priscilla Beach's City Trees and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. The orchestra performs five concerts from November through May with a holiday sing-in at Lansdowne Friends School on Tuesday, Dec. 10. Tickets are $20 per person, $17 for seniors and $5 for students. Parking is free.
"The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra is a quality ensemble," Blundell said, adding that while the 110 attendants are appreciated, "we have room for more. I hope that people will check us out."