It has been a tough couple of years for orchestras. The COVID pandemic disrupted the entire industry, leaving organizations nationwide struggling to survive. Here in Providence, however, resilience and perseverance is seemingly built in to our beloved ensembles, and the music plays on.
Founded in 2006 as the Rhode Island Philharmonic Community Orchestra, The Narragansett Bay Symphony Community Orchestra, or NaBSCO, rebranded itself as an independent entity in 2013, coinciding with the departure of former music director John Eells and the determination of its members to form their own organization.
Principal oboist and board vice president Crikkett Young has been playing the oboe since childhood and has been involved with full-sized orchestras consistently since the eighth grade. Prior to joining NaBSCO, they earned degrees in music performance and civil engineering from Stanford and DePaul Universities, and performed full time with orchestras in Mexico before moving back to the East Coast. While on faculty at The Lincoln School, Young met John Eells and decided to give the orchestra a try.
“My understanding was that there were several adults in the area who played music at a very capable level, many of whom were not playing professionally,” Young explains. “They were looking to establish a high quality volunteer ensemble that could play really good orchestral music. Being a freelance musician, joining an orchestra as a volunteer wasn’t at the top of my list, but I took a chance on it and I’m so glad I did.”
Music director Kristo Kondakçi was born in Albania and hails from Boston, where he studied conducting and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. He knew he wanted to conduct from the age of 10 after attending a concert at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Kondakçi is the founder of several music ensembles, namely the “Kendall Square Orchestra,” a group made up of biotech employees from 50 companies, and the “Eureka Ensemble,” which is a professional performing group composed of his colleagues from NEC. He also spearheaded “Boston Hopes Music” in partnership with NEC and Mass General Hospital, which uses music to address the COVID crisis for COVID-positive patients in the hospital, and includes an instrument learning program for healthcare workers at MGH.
“I was invited to conduct a concert with NaBSCO and instantly fell in love with the group,” says Kondakçi. “At the time, NaBSCO was launching a music director search and asked if I would consider being a candidate. I readily agreed. NaBSCO officially appointed me as their music director right as the pandemic hit. So we’ve been battling it together, and quite well I think.”
Like all large musical ensembles, NaBSCO has had its share of challenges navigating the COVID crisis. All in-person activities were canceled. Musicians could not rehearse or perform together. Any scheduled concerts were postponed, and live music as we know it all but disappeared.
Nevertheless, Kondakçi sought alternative ways to keep the musicians connected and engaged with music. Tapping some of his colleagues in the music world, he presented a weekly educational lecture series over Zoom. As the pandemic stabilized, Kondakçi started to conduct small scale in-person rehearsals, allowing sub-groups of musicians a chance to collaborate and perform chamber music, all while following the state’s official guidelines for gathering.
As COVID restrictions loosen and live performance returns, NaBSCO has an ambitious season planned, filled with repertoire that would be considered adventurous programming by any standards.
“An orchestra is a team of people who come together to be a part of something larger than themselves,” Kondakçi explains. “[The membership] is just so dedicated. Our oldest member is in her 90s, practices daily and plays in chamber music groups. She was a psychiatrist and has enormous willpower to grow and learn. We also have doctors, lawyers, engineers … when you apply that collective brainpower with the love of music, there is no summit you cannot reach.”
With Maestro Kondakçi at the helm, their opening concert on October 31 features Mexican composer Jose Pablo Moncayo’s “Huapango,” Stephanie Ann Boyd’s “Dark Sky Soliloquy” and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6, Pathetique.” An advocate for lesser-known composers and their works, Kondakçi has also programmed works by Lili Boulanger and Duke Ellington, alongside familiar works by Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. On December 18, they will present their version of Handel’s “Messiah” with a twist – it is being sung entirely in Spanish.
“I refer to NaBSCO as a ‘volunteer orchestra,’ but to me it’s important to keep the word ‘community’ in our name.” Young explains. “Connecting to our community, representing our community and welcoming our community is an important part of our mission, so we look at ourselves as a community orchestra in that sense.”
The Narragansett Bay Symphony Community Orchestra opens its 2021-22 season on October 31 at McVinney Auditorium in Providence. For more information visit nabsco.org