The symphony musicians thought it almost seemed like a joke when the director said they’d be performing Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Petrouchka.”
It would be a feat, even for the orchestra used to playing substantial pieces, principal cellist Christine Hutchings said.
After months of practicing on their own, the musicians finally gathered for the first rehearsal, Hutchings said. After they ran through the piece, the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra’s music director and conductor, Matthew Savery, looked over the orchestra with a big grin, she recalled.
“Everyone came with their top game on. It was really exciting,” Hutchings said.
That performance three years ago also stands out to Savery from his decade as music director and conductor of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s an incredibly hard, complicated piece,” he said. “We nailed it. And I think that was the moment where we all looked at each other and realized what was possible.”
This season is his 10th and last with the local symphony. It’s time for him to spend more time at home with his family in Bozeman and with other projects, he said. The Wyoming Symphony Orchestra kicks off Saturday with another challenging piece, Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”
Savery has watched the symphony up its game musically and as an organization, he said. It’s become more involved and known in the community and is providing more musical opportunities for young people. He’s also brought in dozens of guest soloists who perform at top concert halls.
When he took the job, the symphony had struggled with lagging ticket sales, he said. But he saw great potential.
“I really wanted to come and participate in building this orchestra and this organization into a stronger group. And that is what we have done, and I’m really proud of that,” Savery said. “The main thing is it’s not what I’ve done; it’s what the team has done.”
Growing enthusiasm for music
When Savery chooses the season repertoire, he thinks about what could challenge the orchestra and its different sections, Wyoming Symphony Orchestra executive director Rachel Bailey said. They’re playing pieces they’d have struggled with a decade ago.
“I would say that Matthew’s biggest impact to the organization is raising the level of artistry within the musicians,” Bailey said. “I think that he has done such an incredible job of challenging them and working with the to really become a first-class symphony.”
He’s gradually pushed the orchestra to play more challenging pieces every year, Hutchings said.
“He did it very deliberately,” the cellist added. “He’s a teacher, whether he realizes it or not.”
The symphony has always sounded good, Bailey said, but audience members have noticed it sounds better than it had in a long time. Savery is as much part of the show as the orchestra, giving the audience background and stories about the music, she added.
The conductor also has worked on creative collaborations that excited audiences, Bailey said. Those include a “Swan Lake” performance featuring the Eugene Ballet with a full orchestra — which is rare these days, but how Tchaikovsky envisioned the sound, Savery said. The “Petrouchka” concert also featured a multimedia project with local artist Zak Pullen.
Hutchings credits Savery’s programming with substantially increasing the audience sizes, and the repertoire has drawn more musicians, she said.
Savery’s announcements of what the symphony would perform next season is always exciting, Hutchings said.
“It’s like the greatest hits of classical music,” she said. “Every musician loves to play them. Audiences love to hear it.”
Community and friends
Savery also created a new opportunity for students that didn’t exist in the state before: the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra Young Artist Competition. High school and college students around Wyoming compete every other year for a chance to perform a concerto during a symphony concert.
“It gives the young people and the teachers something to work towards,” Savery said
The idea is one Savery brought to the organization, which worked hard to make it happen, Bailey said. The musicians have also performed and presented programs at the hospital, hospice and local schools through the “Music on the Move” program, while he’s worked with students himself in the “Conductor in Residency” program.
Savery draws from his connections as guest director at symphonies throughout the country to bring several top performers in the music world to Casper. Among them are his friends Mark Doss, a Grammy-winning opera star performing in the upcoming concert, pianist Spencer Myer and violin virtuoso Alexander Markov. The latter paired with Savery for a performance in Carnegie Hall two years ago. After gaining a local following during previous Casper visits, Markov returned with his own rock concerto for an outdoor performance during the Wyoming Eclipse Festival.
For years, Savery had been hoping to perform an outdoor concert. The symphony partnered with the city of Casper for a stage extension at the Washington Park band shell to make the show possible.
The concert sold out, and Markov played a six-string custom electric violin with the LED bow. The season also closes with Markov performing Tchaikovsky.
“I’ve been very lucky to make friends with so many people who are really stars,” Savery said. “It’s really special in my life, because these are people who are on a personal level are just extraordinary friends. But on stage we have the deep connection I have with some of these artists — it makes performances so much more profound and fulfilling.”
It takes a lot of people and work to make a symphony successful, Savery said. The administration has worked hard at new approaches to fundraising and connecting with the community. He’s worked on his side to foster a close orchestra.
“Probably the thing I like to think I’ve done the most is help the orchestra become a real team, a real family,” Savery said. “When you’re in with the orchestra rehearsing, or when we’re all hanging out together, there’s clearly a sense of that.”
Savery’s work takes him to Casper for several weeks each season, but he now wants to spend more time with his wife and 4-year-old son. He also plans to work more again as a guest conductor — a career that’s taken him throughout the United States, Europe and Canada. He’ll still travel, but shorter trips and less responsibility will give him more time at home.
The Bozeman Symphony, which he also directs, is working on an expansion as well. And he’s writing a book about his experiences as an American music director.
“I’m going into a new chapter of life,” Savery said.
It will be hard after this season to leave the musicians and many friends he’s made in Wyoming, he said. But he’s confident in the future of the symphony. The orchestra is in a position to attract quality conductors and continue to grow, he said.
“I came there to help turn the orchestra around,” Savery said. “And now I really feel it’s time for the organization and the orchestra to have some new vision. But I feel the foundation is very strong.”