Way up in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, there is actually a state park called Presque Isle. A 13 mile peninsula, this vacation destination draws tens of thousands, each summer, to its eleven public beaches, lagoons, campgrounds, and trails. The city which hosts this gem is called Erie, after the Great Lake which bears the same name. It is here where small, but emphatic, dreams are realized. This is the story of one of them.
The Erie Chamber Orchestra was founded over 35 years ago by the late Bruce Morton Wright. An African American raised by God-fearing parents, his vision took him well beyond the stereotype of his generation. Though he’d spent his early years as a jazz saxophonist, Bruce’s dream – a sudden epiphany, coming to him while seated in the audience of an orchestral concert – was to create a symphonic ensemble of professionals that would present the music of the masters to any audience interested in attending, regardless of socio-economic status. To say that he realized this vision would be an understatement.
An Erie native, Wright qualified by earning a music degree from Mercyhurst College and then studying conducting, both in Vienna, Austria and Colombia, South America. Upon return from his training abroad, he formed the Erie Bayfront Orchestra. The unique feature of this orchestra was its “no ticket required” stature; admission, to every concert, was: FREE.
This ensemble caught the attention of one Charles Beyers, a local philanthropist, who offered a sizable trust through which the orchestra was able to sustain itself for many years. Via this support, the orchestra’s professional musicians were able to receive AF of M Union scale compensation for each “service” (every rehearsal and performance), and Maestro Wright a modest salary.
Though the name was eventually changed to the Erie Chamber Orchestra, its conditions for performance were not; musicians were still paid, at professional Union scale, and the audience’s admission was still free.
Over the decades which followed, the ECO could be seen and heard at such venues as the Villa outdoor promenade, aptly named “Music in the Air”, the Bayfront open amphitheater during the Erie Summer Festival of the Arts, and even served to originate what would become the Lake Erie Ballet Orchestra, with its annual production of Tschaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” The regular season’s offerings were always heard at either Gannon’s Mary Seat of Wisdom Chapel, or the beloved St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.
Bruce, always a man of the people, was warm, accessible, and fiercely loyal both to his musicians and audience alike. He did the work of three people – planning the program, presenting it, and completing it, down to the stacking and hauling away of the last chair and music stand.
Sometime in the mid-90’s, CNN caught wind of this anomaly and sent its filming crew, to document the story and to interview Bruce Wright. The feature appeared nationally, quite a thrill for both the musicians and the entire community of loyal audience members. All were especially proud of Bruce, for being recognized in such grand style.
Several years prior to the illness which took his life, Bruce sold the orchestra’s rights to Gannon University. Gannon committed to the continuing support of the ECO’s mission, maintaining its seasonal offerings while upholding its promise to provide music free of charge to the public. Gannon pays the salaries of both the conductor and the business manager, and provides a marketing budget for the seasonal calendar and any outreach efforts.
The Erie Chamber Orchestra is not, nor has it ever been, affiliated with the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra. Each is a distinct entity, with both a distinct financial structure and season calendar. The only similarity, which many may note, is that both orchestras share some personnel – primarily across the string sections.
Like the Erie Philharmonic, professional personnel which populate the Erie Chamber Orchestra hail from both the city of Erie, its surrounding townships, greater Erie County, Meadville, and Pittsburgh, as well as university centers in Western New York and Eastern Ohio.
Maestro Matthew Kraemer, originally associated with the Buffalo Philharmonic, succeeded Bruce Wright following the maestro’s death in 2011. Though he is leaving in 2017, his efforts have expanded the orchestra’s repertoire and personnel considerably. Regional professionals in attendance have remarked at the quality, both of the ensemble and its musical execution, of the new “ECO”. Notable soloists, just in the past two seasons, have included numerous Eastman School of Music faculty, as well as Concertmaster David Kim of the Philadelphia Orchestra, cellist Roman Mekinulov, violinists Rachel Barton Pine and Michael Ludwig, and even actor Harry J. Lennix as narrator for Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat”.
We are a proud and durable lot at the ECO. We welcome both your support as audience attendees, and your generous donations toward our financial sustainability. If you have never paid a visit to an ECO performance, go to the Erie Chamber Orchestra at Gannon University and email our GM, Camille Pierce. Request that you be placed on the mailing list. She will send you a season brochure! All you’ll need, beyond that, are the wheels to take you to either Luther Memorial or First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, where we perform in season 2016-17. There really isn’t an affordable venue in Erie County big enough or acoustically suited to the needs of our orchestra, so these churches have opened their sanctuaries for our use, an act of generosity for which we are very, very grateful.
The 2016-17 concert schedule has brought the ECO into yet another season of candidates vying for the baton. Two down, three to go!
Hope to see you, soon! Bruce would be so happy. And, in his memory, we would be, too.
Ruth Ann Scanzillo
Erie Chamber Orchestra.