Over the past 22 years the Greater Newburgh Symphony Orchestra’s (GNSO) mission has always been community focused, hosting concert series that feature local musical talent. So, when audience numbers began to decline, the organization sought to make the concerts more accessible and relevant to the community. Russell Ger, the orchestra’s newest musical director, was the perfect fit for taking on that task.
Ger, a native of Australia, was no stranger to the world of music growing up. His grandmother had been a semi-professional opera singer in South Africa, and his mother was a trained pianist. “Music came very naturally to me,” says Ger.
He started out in school on the euphonium, a miniature tuba, which he chose for its “beautifully mellifluous dulcet tone color.” Playing the euphonium, and later the tuba, paved the way to his future in conducting. “Because you are always at the root of the chord, it gave me a very solid understanding of how harmony works,” explains Ger.
Ger took his first conducting class in high school, and loved the challenge of it. Although there were no undergraduate conductor programs in Australia, Ger continued to pursue conducting in university by forming his own ensembles and finding mentors to teach him. His passion brought him to the States to study a Masters of Music in Orchestral Conducting at the Boston Conservatory, eventually landing a gig in Manhattan that moved him into the heart of New York City.
For Ger, the most rewarding part of conducting is rehearsal. “That’s when all of our agonizing about phrasing and balance and shape and color and all the artistic decisions we have to make before we arrive at the orchestra start to bear fruit,” Ger explains. It reminds him of his tradition in Australia of diving into the ocean, holding his breath and looking out into the aquamarine’s refracted light. “I love that feeling of being completely immersed in the water, and that is what it feels like in rehearsal. I feel like I’m completely enveloped and immersed in the music.”
Since joining the Greater Newburgh Symphony Orchestra in September, Ger has been working hard to raise the artistic ability of the group while also growing the audience — both of which have seen vast improvement. Audience numbers have doubled since Ger began, averaging 700, though his goal is for concerts to eventually be sold out. He’s also worked to incorporate a more standard repertoire of music, featuring composers like Brahms and Beethoven. “At this stage, what is critical for the orchestra is to build our trust with the audien: give them music that is recognizable and accessible,” says Ger. However, experimentation is not completely unwelcome, as the orchestra will host its first holiday concert this winter.
At the heart of GNSO is Newburgh, and Ger is mindful of that. “I’ve never in my life encountered a citizenry as dedicated, committed and passionate about their town. What I am most proud of is the fact that since my tenure began, the orchestra is emerging into a role that is increasingly, integrally woven into the fabric of life in the city,” said Ger. “I think the fact that the city is able to support the orchestra and that the orchestra is reflecting of the city is a wonderful symbiotic relationship.”
GNSO will host its last concert of the season, “Lord of the Dance,” on Saturday, July 29 at 4 p.m. The evening will feature pieces such as Strauss’ Pizzicato Polka and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, performed in Mount Saint May College’s Aquinas Hall.