The Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Trond Saeverud, is a community orchestra by most measures, but after their recent performance in Eastport, many would agree that this community music-group it is a cut above. One audience member spontaneously announced on his way out, “Why go to New York?”

Perhaps it was the guest soloist Mira Armij Gill from New York for the Chopin piano concerto that helped raise the bar.  “It is quite special” to find such a committed group in a rural area, remarked Gill, who has performed across the country

Gene Nichols, music professor at the University of Maine at Machias, UMM, played the bassoon parts on his euphonium and advised the two young timpani players. “When working with an orchestra you must be totally aware of what you need to do (on your instrument), listen to everyone else and then in your peripheral vision, watch the conductor; you have to be always listening and seeing.”

Front and center, Saeverud commands the stage and his musicians with focused intensity, dynamic gestures and, more than often, a smile. He explained his motivations: “first objective is that the players enjoy themselves…second is that the audience enjoys it.”

Fortunately, this group enjoys hard work. Helen Swallow, who plays the clarinet, an instrument she had not picked up for forty years since high school, also serves as the orchestra librarian. She praised their conductor, “Trond makes us all play better than we could possibly play: he insists on the musicality. He is patient and gentle and encouraging.”  Anyone can join, as there are no auditions but, according to Swallow, this does not hold the group back: “If you can not play all four notes in the measure, you just play one, but you will play it at the right time and you will gain confidence.” 

Four years ago when Saeverud directed a performance of the Messiah at the University of Maine Machias, he worked with a small chamber ensemble of local musicians.  Despite the fact that he was already conducting a community orchestra in Farmington, Saeverud recognized the potential to build another orchestra Downeast.  Doug and Dovie Gaithers had recently moved to Maine and were part of that ensemble. They took the idea and made it into a reality. It was popular from the start. According to the Gaithers, “When we called the first meeting, twenty-six people showed up.”

The Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra (PBSO) is part of the Eastport Arts Center as is Eastport Strings, a group that offers instruction and performance opportunities for violin and cello students of all ages. Rosa Bragdon, one of Eastport Strings’ original students served as this year’s PBSO concertmaster. St Clair, one of the founders of Eastport Strings is stepping aside to allow her student a moment in the spotlight. “I am playing the viola so that Rosa can have that experience, learn to lead and take it with her to college and her future life,” says St. Clair. She is one of five family members that has been a part of the orchestra from the beginning.

Across the border in St Andrews New Brunswick resides another family of five who were among the founding group of musicians. The Frosts are just a few of the Canadian members of this truly international orchestra. In all, there are about thirty musicians.  The conductor does not keep count, but he does notice the range of ages. “Many of the players are in the 70s or 80s. This provides them an opportunity to do something that they could not have done otherwise: a very active intense program.”

Saeverud says that music selections are “based on our resources, what we can play, pieces that we will enjoy playing and, yes, those that I will enjoy conducting.” Saeverud builds on his own considerable accomplishments as a musician and conductor. A Norwegian native from a musical family, he now lives just north of Eastport in Robbinson.  He has been first violin and concertmaster for the Bangor Symphony Orchestra since 2005. Between the BSO, his students, and two community orchestras, he is on the road about 600 miles a week. The PBSO practices on Thursday evenings, Farmington on Wednesdays; and Saeverud, always pushing his own limits, is proposing a community orchestra for Bangor.” When would they practice? “on Tuesdays.”

But with the success PBSO fall concert weekend, Saeverud looks ahead to spring and the Sibelius’s Symphony No.1. “It is the next step up in difficulty and the expression will work in our setting.”

Coverage of Washington County is made possible by a grant from the Eaton Foundation.

Leslie Bowman is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Trescott.