The Virginia Symphony Orchestra (VSO) has been bringing music to Hampton Roads for more than 100 years. Based out of Norfolk, VSO has not only played a variety of classic, pop and family-based concerts across the Virginia Peninsula, but has also helped people connect to one another through music, music they might not normally experience.
Rodney Martell, the orchestra’s bass trombonist and artistic administrator, is in his 31st season with VSO. “VSO is a regional orchestra of 75 contracted musicians, with 49 of us full-time ‘core’ musicians. We play programs from the Outer Banks to Williamsburg to Gloucester to Courtland and up to the Eastern Shore,” Martell says. “Our season runs from Labor Day to mid-June with a few summer concerts sprinkled in. We do most of our ticketed programs at the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News, Chrysler Hall in Norfolk and Sandler Center in Virginia Beach. We are also the primary orchestra for the Virginia Arts Festival and the Virginia Opera.”
VSO has a long-standing history in the Commonwealth. “It was founded by community members and musicians in 1921 as the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, Martell says. “The orchestra consolidated the Norfolk Symphony, the Peninsula Symphony and the Virginia Beach Pops Orchestra in the 80’s to become the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.”
The orchestra now features a variety of instruments, including the violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, e-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, piccolo, oboe, English horn, bassoon, contrabassoon, horn, trombone, bass trombone, trumpet, tuba, timpani, harp, percussion and piano. The orchestra also often performs with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus, who are also critically acclaimed performers.
Joining VSO is no easy task. Becoming a member requires a lengthy audition process. “Openings for VSO are advertised through the American Federation of Musicians, and candidates come from all over the country to audition. We listen to anyone who applies and conduct our auditions behind a screen to protect the anonymity of each applicant,” Martell says. “Each musician is sent a very specific list of pieces and sections that will be asked for. Most auditions have a preliminary, semi-final and possibly two final rounds before a winner is chosen.”
While Martell says he practices about 10 hours a week, some musicians in the orchestra practice upwards of 20 hours. All this practice time can be difficult to squeeze in around a work schedule. “For the 49 core musicians, this is a salaried job with benefits. Almost all of us do other work on the side, whether it’s freelancing, teaching or arts administration. We even have a handyman in the orchestra,” Martell says with a smile. “Some of our part-time musicians are people who play in many different orchestras throughout the United States. Depending on the program, we sometimes bring in guests from Philadelphia, New York and even as far away as California.”
If you aren’t sure if classical performances of the works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are what you are interested in, VSO has you covered. These musicians also specialize in pop concerts of songs by groups such as the Bee Gees, or songs from movies like Harry Potter or Star Wars. Family-based shows are also offered, such as music from Seussical, The Musical and Halloween performances where there is trick or treating before the holiday-themed performance.
Martell emphasizes that the variety of music VSO offers makes it unique. “I think what people don’t understand about our musical jobs is that we get to play something different every single week, sometimes even different works within a week. We’re always playing music we have not played before and the variety this year has ranged from Tchaikovsky to Wynton Marsalis to John Williams to the Bee Gees. I’m never bored,” Martell says.
Virginia Symphony Orchestra is an experience for all ages and lovers of differing genres to help everyone realize the magic of music and the orchestra.
TO THE POINT:
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Address: 150 Boush St., Ste. 201, Norfolk, VA 23510
Contact: Collin Norman, director of marketing and communication