By Len Lear
For many decades, Drexel University has had the reputation as an outstanding engineering school. The last thing one would expect to find at Drexel, therefore, would be a full symphony orchestra. However, thanks in large part to long-time Mt. Airy resident (almost 25 years), Rosalind Erwin, this stunning musical transformation has actually happened.
Erwin’s reputation as a musician and conductor is stellar. She has been welcomed on podiums both in the U.S. and abroad. She studied conducting with Joseph Barone, participated in master classes given by Lorin Maazel, Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman and Riccardo Muti, and was honored by the Leopold Stokowski Memorial Conducting Competition of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Erwin is the former music director and conductor of the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra (PSO) and has guest-conducted numerous orchestras and music festivals. In 1998, Erwin left PSO to pursue conducting opportunities in Europe. “Having seen Rosalind Erwin conduct,” said Muti, flamboyant former music director for the Philadelphia Orchestra, “I have been pleased to recognize her musical and technical talents as a teacher and conductor.”
But how did the Drexel University assignment come about? “When I was hired in the summer of 2013,” Erwin told us last week, “Drexel’s performing arts department only supported a string ensemble, which was slowly trying to morph into a full symphonic orchestra. I was told by then-Department Chairman Dr. Steven Powell to ‘create an orchestra;’ with much hard work and with great departmental support, I did.”
The size of the orchestra fluctuates with every term due to the number of students who are on the traditional co-op (on-the-job training experience), but In general, there are between 65-70 members. Unlike Curtis Institute, Berklee School of Music, Juilliard, etc., whose graduates almost all pursue a full-time career in music, few if any at Drexel do. “While many members could have chosen to attend conservatory or a university music school,” Erwin explained, “these students play for the love of it and are tremendous examples of what is a true amateur (for the love of it).”
However, Drexel’s performance department does offer the opportunity to minor in music. Private lessons are available with highly accomplished players from the great pool of professional Philadelphia musicians, and courses in music theory, ear training, music history and music composition are also taught. “My principal trombonist, whose major is business and finance, is a music minor both in trombone and the organ. Alex Smith will be playing the organ when we perform Saint-Saens ‘Symphony No. 3’ (organ) and trombone in Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ in the June 9 concert” (That concert, free and open to the public, will mark the first University Orchestra performance with the historical and recently renovated Drexel University pipe organ. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the school’s main auditorium, 3141 Chestnut St.)
Erwin was born in Montana but was raised in Doylestown and graduated from Central Bucks High School, the New School of Music in Philadelphia and Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music. In 2005, she and the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra were broadcast on WHYY in pre-recorded concerts, including Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” with David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
As a clarinetist, Erwin soloed with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the DePaul Chamber Orchestra, and performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Delaware Symphony. She was the driving force behind the creation of Musica 2000/The Symphony Orchestra, presenting numerous world premieres of commissions by emerging American and Eastern European composers.
This season the Drexel University Orchestra, which is only able to rehearse once a week for 2.5 hours, will have performed Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9” (The “New World”); Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite;” the Bruch Violin Concerto with Michael Ludwig, international soloist and concertmaster of The Philly POPS; Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 4,” movement one, with student soloist Christian Oliveros (a biology major); Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances.”
Does Erwin encourage her Drexel students to pursue music as a career? “I would say what I say to anyone considering pursuing music as their profession: if you cannot live without doing ‘this’ on a daily basis, then pursue it. But keep SOMETHING — other job skills — in your back pocket!”
What is the most rewarding thing about directing such an orchestra? “The level of intelligence of the members of this orchestra is very high. Explaining basic musical concepts is not difficult because many, if not most, come from sophisticated musical backgrounds. While these students often come to rehearsal totally beat from the rigors of their course work, they view playing as a release. By the end of about 20 minutes of ‘warming up,’ these rehearsals are very gratifying to me because of what we are able to accomplish.” But the most frustrating thing is “the lack of rehearsal time.”
Erwin is also the director and conductor of the new Philadelphia Young Artists Orchestra. “This year the PYAO was the most mature ensemble I have yet to direct,” she said. “In their final concert these young people performed not only Debussy’s ‘Nuages and Fetes’ from ‘Nocturns’ but also Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris.’”