‘Dark Horse’ Leads LSO Through 25th Season

The Loudoun Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 25th birthday this year. And for 18 of those years, charismatic maestro Mark Allen McCoy has been at the helm.

McCoy’s mission for this milestone year is taking the show on the road, offering programming for everyone from hardcore classical connoisseurs to families with young children.

The LSO performs its Northern Scapes concert, focusing on northern European composers, Jan. 30 at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne. The Kennedy Center-style gala performance will be followed by smaller scale performances in Middleburg and Purcellville later this winter.
“For this season, my sole goal was to try to get the orchestra out into the community more. We’ve been able to do that by moving the orchestra to different venues,” McCoy said.
For nearly two decades, McCoy has been drawing in music aficionados and culture seekers with his strategy of combining more familiar pieces with lesser-known but equally engaging works. The Jan. 30 concert features Felix Mendelssohn’s beloved “Hebrides Overture” (also known as “Fingal’s Cave”) with a symphony by Mendelssohn’s friend, the less well-known Danish composer Niels Gade.

“It has music that is very familiar … and then we have what I consider one of the hidden gems in the second half,” McCoy said of the upcoming concert. “It’s one of the rare symphonies that nobody knows that everybody’s going to delight in.”
The dashing McCoy with his mane of white hair is something of a rock star in local classical music circles, and some local music mavens have made no bones about the fact that his presence is a big part of the draw.

In fact, McCoy’s landing the position was something of a fluke. Eighteen years ago, he was based in Baltimore, conducting the Towson University Orchestra and Chesapeake Children’s Symphony. McCoy submitted his candidature for the Loudoun post late and wasn’t initially among the top three names. But an opening caused by the unexpected death of one of the candidates made room for McCoy and in the end he got the job, leading to the Washington Post’s April 1998 headline, “Dark Horse Beats 2 Others To Baton.”

The LSO itself was the initiative of a group of local musicians, including David Hughes, a lawyer who has served as principal clarinetist since 1992 and coordinates the orchestra’s chamber music program. From the outset, educational outreach was a big part of the push to create the symphony (at the time, there was no strings program in Loudoun schools) and remains an important part of its mission—both offering an outlet for promising musicians beyond school bands and orchestras and simply exposing children to live classical music.

“There was no performing orchestral organization in the county,” McCoy said. “There was not a strong program in the schools. The desire of the musicians [was] to not only start a small orchestra but somehow incorporate some string education into the county.”

The symphony is now a combination of part-time musicians with day jobs (doctors, lawyers, engineers) and professional musicians from around the region. There are a few paid chairs, but most of the musicians volunteer their time.

“They’re very passionate and serious about what they do,” McCoy said.

The Loudoun Youth Symphony Orchestra was launched 13 years ago as a forum for talented middle and high school-aged students to perform in semi-professional conditions.

Last year, the youth orchestra took things up a notch when it landed a $35,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to create its Preparatory Retreat for Excellence Program (PREP)—allowing it to offer a weekend of master classes by top-level instructors. LYSO’s concerts are free, and the group’s popular annual Ensembles For Everyone concert is focused on bringing music to people with special needs.

There’s a pipeline of sorts between the two orchestras. For LYSO flutist Allison Lane, trips to the LSO adult symphony as a child with her mother Wendy, a private music teacher, helped inspire her to pursue her symphonic aspirations. And on the flip side, there are a handful of LYSO alumni who have returned to Loudoun and now play in the adult symphony, said general manager Karen Knobloch.

And while the audition-based youth orchestra is increasingly competitive, LSO also offers programs for less experienced young musicians (and non-musicians looking to explore). The Loudoun String Workshop is open to students of all levels after only a year of string instruction. And the Loudoun Quartet (made up of LSO members) travels to schools around the county, with a focus on the elementary grades to give students a taste of live classical music. The LSO also co-sponsors an annual Instrument Petting Zoo, with support from the Loudoun County Public Library and Melodee Music, to give children a chance to see, hear and touch musical instruments.

For Rachel Newell, a long-time music teacher who took on the role of LSO education coordinator after her retirement two years ago, reaching out to young people and showing them the power of the relationship between musicians and their audience is still key.

“It’s important for a community to have the power of classical music,” Newell said. “If a child can see people making beautiful music, they can be inspired and say, ‘I want to do that some day.’”

Here’s a look at the symphony’s 2016 offerings.


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