By RICH REIBEN – Opinion Writer for Finger Lake Times in New York
Karen and I spent Saturday in Cheyenne, Wyo., waiting for our son to perform with the Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra that evening.
Just over the border from Colorado, Wyoming’s capital is a community of some 60,000 — more than 10 percent of the state’s total population, and considerably less even than the shrinking populace of metropolitan Syracuse. The city is primarily known as the home of the largest rodeo celebration in the country. A policewoman in the downtown Mexican restaurant where we ate lunch told me where we could find the “bustling” shopping district, which if the truth be told, fell somewhat short of that standard.
But against all odds, it would seem, the Cheyenne cultural scene is vibrant (yes, it’s the most overused term in the book to describe the arts, but in this case it’s the best one I can think of). The Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 60th anniversary. The Civic Center’s Performing Arts Theatre, its home venue, seats 1,500 on two levels, yet the furthest seat is just 135 feet from the stage. The Center sports a full calendar of national acts — we missed one of my favorites, the Blue Man Group, by just a couple of days. The CSO list of donors seems to consist of just about everyone.
Still, I’ll admit I might have been a little skeptical about how a tiny city in a vast state whose population per square mile rounds down to zero can support a first-rate regional orchestra. Turns out, I didn’t have much to worry about. I may not be a musician, but I ran orchestras for 10 years. Take it from me, the Cheyenne Symphony is indeed a first-rate regional orchestra. The acid test came courtesy of the spectacular, slightly forward acoustics of the concert hall, warmed by cedar wood walls throughout. Sonic detail simply has nowhere to hide there. This was particularly evident in the CSO performance of the concert finale, Antonin Dvorak’s spectacular Ninth Symphony, “From the New World,” which capped an ambitious evening of music written in America, including “Letter From Home,” a seldom-heard Copeland tone poem, and Samuel Barber’s violin concerto with first-rate guest soloist Janet Sung.
The Dvorak’s Ninth challenges every section of the orchestra; there is no room for a weak link or even a botched phrase anywhere, which is why our son Joseph, its acting principal bassist, spent the two-hour break between dress rehearsal and the concert agonizing over his burger about the tiny — but prominent — double bass section solo at the end of the second movement. Turns out, he didn’t have much to worry about either — nor did the rest of this talented aggregation. Each section performed in a crisp and nearly flawless manner. Only once in a great while is an evening of music so exhilarating.
It was not only because of William Intriligator, a gifted and enthusiastic music director, and his mostly young and very talented musicians, some of whom commute hundreds of miles for rehearsals and concerts (no labor union and no mileage reimbursement, thanks); but also the remarkable support of a community that for 60 years has unrestrictedly opened its heart, soul and purse strings in the name of classical music.
I suppose it is common for denizens of the coasts to look askance at red state culture. OK, so maybe in Cheyenne there’s a little more pre-concert banter than usual, and some of the blue-jeaned patrons applaud (and are even gratefully acknowledged) between movements. But while arts institutions struggle and frequently fail in areas we deem culturally rich — consider the dissolution of the Syracuse Symphony and the recent travails of the Rochester Philharmonic — the farmers, ranchers, bankers and merchants of Cheyenne have accomplished something truly remarkable: an enduring, endearing and maybe even iconic institution that far transcends its modest environs.