Can Paul Gambill grow Vermont’s classical music audiences?


Paul Gambill, whose stated professional aim is to create new audiences for classical music, just conducted his last concerts as music director of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. In March he did the same with the Champlain Philharmonic, based in Middlebury, Rutland and Vergennes.

What better way to promote classical music than by leading two of the state’s all-volunteer community orchestras? After all, like community theater and choruses, they attract members’ families and friends.

But that’s not enough for Gambill, who started his professional conducting career in Nashville, and moved to Montpelier with his family — without a job, but where they wanted to live — in 2009. Having enjoyed Vermont, he decided early on to bring the joy of music to as much as his chosen state as possible.

Gambill began showing his innovative colors from the beginning, inviting Nashville folk/country stars to perform crossover music with the orchestras. But, while it attracted some new people, this was hardly revolutionary.

However, that was only the beginning. In 2012, he sent the professional ensemble Kid Pan Alley into Montpelier’s Union Elementary School to create a series of songs with the students. Even the teachers created one.

The students’ teachers and parents, as well as regular concert-goers, packed the 500 seats of Montpelier’s St. Augustine’s Church to hear the kids sing their songs, joined by Burlington professional jazz singer Amber de Laurentis, with the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. They also enjoyed Mozart’s Overture to “Don Giovanni,” Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville Summer of 1915,” and John Rutter’s “Mass of the Children.”

And, of course, they loved it. It’s great music.

But this was only an opening salvo for Gambill. He achieved spectacular results at a 2013 concert. The Montpelier Chamber Orchestra and Champlain Philharmonic commissioned a work from Kenji Bunch, violist and composer with the Craftsbury Chamber Players, for famed electric violinist Tracy Silverman. (An electric violin is like an electric guitar, not an amplified violin.)

At Montpelier High School’s Smilie Auditorium, “Embrace” opened with a solo cadenza on Silverman’s six-string violin that reflected bluegrass fiddling. Midsection, 18 individuals — teens and elders — shared thoughts about their futures while Silverman and Marshfield bassist Evan Premo “jammed” on Bunch’s themes in response.

Members of the orchestra gradually entered the stage and began supporting Silverman with larger and larger forces. Everything built up to a splashy grand finale — something that would have been at home on “Glee.”

“Embrace” proved more of a “happening” than a serious musical composition. But the big surprise came after intermission.

This audience, full of teens — some whom whooped and hollered (appropriately) during the first half — and others not usually seen at classical music concerts, as well as the stalwarts, sat riveted throughout Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“Embrace” had prepared them to absorb and experience one of the greatest masterpieces of symphonic literature. The response was rapturous.

Gambill made his point. And this was the inspiration for his Community Engagement Lab, where he is now focusing his attention.

In April, an unlikely crowd again nearly filled Smilie Auditorium. “My Hometown: A Celebration of Place” presented by the Lab, had begun weeks earlier with musicians Premo and Jon Gailmor, and visual artist Gowri Savoor working with kids in the Montpelier and Randolph schools.

Perhaps the most rewarding was a set of four songs, “Invisible Presence,” composed by Team Sirius students at Montpelier’s Main Street Middle School. The students had created poetry addressing hunger and poverty problems in the area and then, facilitated by Premo, turned them into songs, which the Marshfield bassist and composer then orchestrated. They were beautifully performed by Counterpoint, Vermont’s 12-voice professional vocal ensemble, and a professional orchestra, all conducted by Gambill.

The musical high point was again Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” The audience of children and parents — not regulars at classical music concerts — embraced not only their children’s work, but the classics.

Gambill and his Community Engagement Lab plan to take the “Hometown: A Celebration of Place” program statewide. Will all of Vermont embrace it, and will it lead to new classical music audiences? We’ll see.

Jim Lowe is music critic and arts editor for the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.