Music without borders: How the International Symphony Orchestra connects Ontario and Michigan

TVO.org talks to executive director Anthony Wing about customs delays, coordinating performers in two countries, and how music can resolve conflicts
By Mary Baxter - Published on March 11, 2019

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Since 1957, performers from Sarnia and Port Huron, Michigan, have been proving that music has no borders. The International Symphony Orchestra, a semi-professional group of roughly 100 Canadian and American instrumentalists and singers based in Sarnia and Port Huron, puts on 12 shows a year (a repertoire of six concerts with performances repeated on either side of the border) from the fall to the spring.

Like other cross-border symphony orchestras in Ontario (including Fort Frances’ Borderland Community Orchestra and Sault Ste-Marie’s Sault Symphony Orchestra), the ISO deals with hurdles unlike those faced by your average ensemble. Practice makes perfect — so how do geographically distant performers learn to play well together? And what kinds of logistical issues are involved in taking cellists, oboists, trumpeters, and the like through customs? Anthony Wing, the organization’s executive director, talks to TVO.org about the rewards and challenges of performing on both sides of the border.

You are a semi-professional orchestra. What does that mean?

We pay about 30 or 35 per cent of our musicians, meaning they're professionals who we bring in to strengthen the quality and for leadership. The rest are drawn from the community; the ones who've been with us the longest get honorariums.

How do you coordinate the operations and practising? Are your players split equally between the two countries?

The symphony is operated here in Sarnia. Our offices are in Canada, and so the main administration is here. But we do, however, keep offices in Michigan, and we do all our rehearsals there.

What are some of the challenges of operating a non-profit across borders?

The financial ins and outs and exigencies of managing a non-profit are complicated by its being a cultural non-profit and further complicated by the currency shift by the outlets for support, which are very different on both sides of the border. We do separate tax forms. We will go apply to the Ontario Arts Council for funding, but then we'll go to the Michigan council, which is also tied into the National Endowment for the Arts. It's at times fantastically complex to wade through the differences. It just complicates the non-profit status.

I think that anyone running an orchestra on either side of the border, has been, for a few decades now, in crisis. It's the symphony orchestra that has struggled with an identity crisis — how best to manage itself and to renew itself and somehow to restore the relevance now that it once had. That challenge is doubled because we operate in the two nations.

Do you ever run into problems crossing the border?

We had a horrific delay at the bridge two concert series ago; the concert was at the Imperial Theatre in Sarnia, and the U.S. contingent was still not completely all accounted for, and we were five minutes away from curtain. It was our Celtic concert, which tends to be our most successful every year. We had The Steel City Rovers playing with the orchestra.

We had almost no cellos — there was this big gap right in the corner. So we decided to do the two national anthems, and then I just said to Steel City Rovers, “Guys, could you just go out?” So they went and played until everybody arrived. In those situations, you just adapt. You've got to think on your feet.

Does being a cross-border symphony orchestra have its benefits?

Pre–9/11, there was a close relationship between the two cities. When I was growing up, I crossed to go to record stores and stuff. Detroit was the closest big city for the Sarnia community.

We have this cultural identity made up of both countries. I've never, ever witnessed any sort of difficulty between the orchestra members from being from different countries. It's almost never discussed. The strongest thing about it is that the camaraderie between us indicates that we are still in the pre–9/11 world — it's just the border is a little tight tighter now because of it. We still have so much in the common. Music brings all forms of conflict to a close.

What are some of your plans for the future?

One of my goals is to get a stronger youth contingent. We also administer the youth ensemble. We have a program in the summertime called Summer Strings, which teaches the violin and cello to kids. We have a partnership with the school boards in the States, and every year we do a huge concert for fifth-graders. We did that this year for about 900 fifth-graders in Michigan. It's a gas.

I'm moving us to a storefront in downtown Sarnia in May. It will be just steps away from our art gallery and from the Imperial Theatre. Our new office is a former dance studio. It'll be the administration office, but it will also be a place where we have small lunch-time concerts.

I think a lot about convergence with other arts and cultural organizations. Next year, we're going to do a few pieces of convergence with the theatre. Also, I'm trying to have a better relationship with the city, to get more involved with city events.

I'm just trying to get the ISO more of a community presence. Sarnia has shown this great resiliency in the great industry here; it seems to be a fitting challenge to reach out to youth and to let people know that this is still a very very culturally fertile place to raise your family.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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