New community orchestra forming in the South Sound

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By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

During these times that are so uncertain and stressful, having something to look forward to can go a long way in soothing worried minds and heavy hearts. It is in this spirit that Parke Burgess is working to assemble a new community orchestra based in Tacoma – the Salish Sea Philharmonia Orchestra (SSPO). With eyes to the future, Burgess has put out the call for players to come and try out for this all volunteer orchestra in preparation for its first season once it becomes safe for audiences to gather again for live music events.

Burgess was inspired to launch this project after he and his family watched a dress rehearsal of a Pacific Northwest Ballet performance that was canceled due to the pandemic. 

“It was a moment of going to the ballet from our living room,” he said, “and I was struck by how sad I was that I didn’t know when I would be able to go to a concert or performance of this kind again. I realized just how deeply important that is to me and how significant it is to the life of a community to have arts events.”

A seasoned musician, conductor and teacher, Burgess went on to do things other than music for the past 20 years. However, he said that this moment with the PNB suddenly felt so precious that it re-awakened in him the zeal to create music again. 

“I want to make more opportunities for (arts events) to happen in the community again. I want to give musicians who may be feeling the same thing I’m feeling the opportunity to get together and enjoy what’s possible when we’re not locked inside our own homes.”

Another reason that Burgess wants to form the orchestra is to help counteract all the heavy issues that have been coming at all of us over these past months – the COVID-19 pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and racial tensions, insecurities surrounding the economy… All of this and more builds and builds to where it can seem like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. 

“There is a sense that we live in a very dark time and the idea of let’s build for something beautiful that happens once we’re out of this dark period just feels really important right now,” Burgess said, “to have some positivity, some hopeful vision of the future. That’s part of what I want to offer as well.”

Musicians of all orchestral instruments are encouraged to take part in SSPO – woodwinds, brass, and “as many string players as I can get because that’s usually the hardest thing, to get a full enough string section,” Burgess said. As most symphony orchestras are made up of about 50 players, this is the number that he is shooting for. As this is an all-volunteer orchestra, Burgess included, if seasoned professionals want to play for the sheer love it, they are welcomed. 

At this point, Burgess is projecting the Salish Sea Philharmonia Orchestra’s first performance to take place in the fall of 2021. 

“My plan is to wait and see what happens. I’m certainly watching the performing arts organizations around the region and worldwide about when they feel ready to actually start working again and putting on public concerts, and whether it seems like people are willing to go to public concerts again. All of that needs to feel like it’s looking promising before I want to get serious about setting dates. I’m hanging back and waiting to see how things develop.”

Burgess holds a doctorate in conducting from the University of Washington, and a B.A. in music theory and history from Yale. In the 1990s, he held various posts, including music director of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra and the Everett Youth Symphonies, and served as Director of Orchestras at California State University at Stanislaus. 

In 2000, Burgess hung up his baton and threw himself into other projects, including a period of intensive monastic training at the Providence Zen Center in Rhode Island, writing a book on nonviolent social change, and starting a private practice as a psychotherapist.

As SSPO founder and director, Burgess’ new music adventure has already had a profound affect on him in that it brought him out of retirement and back to his love for making music. 

“Though I had committed myself to have a professional career as a conductor and musician, I realized that for me it is healthiest if music is an avocation. I didn’t want to be chasing an income,” he said. “Like many musicians, I was piecing together many part-time jobs and really couldn’t get the space and distance from what I was doing so that every time I came back to it, I was full of joy and excitement. That’s where I want to be and that’s where I’m at my best.

“I needed to move away from music pretty substantially to do almost entirely other things and now feel ready to come back with that freshness and treat it not as a vocation, but as an avocation.”        

Also an accomplished cellist, Burgess knows what it’s like to be “on the boards” as a player, which lends itself well to his plan for the orchestra be a collaborative effort among everyone involved so that all have ownership. 

As he explained: “I want to put up good guard rails so that it’s likely to be successful, but I want to create as much space for creativity and freedom to figure this thing out together. The experience that I want everyone to come away with is that this is theirs…that they get to build it the way it spontaneously and organically wants to be.”

The Salish Sea Philharmonia Orchestra sees the story of its founding as a beacon of hope in a very dark time, a refusal to succumb to despair, and a celebration of the splendors of the human imagination. To learn more and to sign up, visit www.SalishPhil.org.

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