Conductor celebrates decade on SSO podium

Peter Stafford Wilson has the ability to inspire his musicians

On Feb. 25, he’ll conduct his fifth full performance of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst when the Springfield Symphony Orchestra presents a new, original multimedia production of the famous cosmic suite.

The presentation will span the 2.8 billion miles between the sun and the faraway ice giant known as Neptune — but after 10 seasons as music director of the SSO, Wilson is still just over the moon to be on the Kuss Auditorium podium.

“Here’s to another 10 years,” Wilson remarked recently. “I promise I’ll retire at 70.”

But why stop at 70? The last time John Glenn rode two solid-rocket boosters into orbit, he was 77 — even a Mahler symphony isn’t much of a match for 2.65 million pounds of thrust.

It’s just that Wilson, 57, remains ever self-aware of his ability to inspire his musicians.

A decade ago, he inherited an orchestra from a conductor, the now-late John Ferritto, who spent 30 years in the post.

He credits the affable Ferritto — the longest-serving conductor in SSO history — with keeping the orchestra going in rough times and taking musical risks early in his tenure.

“But it’s the extraordinary leader who, after 30 years, can still challenge the orchestra,” Wilson said.

That wasn’t the Springfield Symphony Orchestra he found in 2002.

“They often used the term, ‘This orchestra plays much better than it should,’ ” he recalled. “There was an awful lot of flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants attitude.”

It had nothing to do with the orchestra’s proficiency.

“They were excited to play together, they had a phenomenal instrument in Kuss Auditorium, but they weren’t always completely prepared to come to the first rehearsal,” Wilson explained.

In his first decade, Wilson said he hasn’t made many personnel changes.

So, essentially, it’s the same orchestra, just with different expectations.

“We’re all taking it very seriously,” he said.

“It took a while for me to get the point across.”

A North Carolina native who’s also served as associate conductor of the Columbus Symphony since the ’90s, Wilson found in Springfield his artistic freedom.

And the results speak for themselves.

In 2010, the SSO was honored with an ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming for its 2009-10 season, in which a contemporary composer was featured on each program.

That daring season saw the loss of just one season subscriber, Wilson said.

“But he came back,” Wilson said.

The orchestra also has produced multimedia concerts that celebrated the area’s agricultural and manufacturing legacies.

“We need to respond to what this community offers us,” Wilson said.

“It’s not about shoving Brahms down their throats. We have sustainable farmers among our subscribers.

“That’s the successful music director of today.”

The upcoming performance of “The Planets” is a prime example of Wilson relying on a pool of talent and expertise right in the orchestra’s backyard.

Once again working with The Now Device, a video production company with a Springfield tie, the SSO has commissioned a show that will feature spectacular NASA imagery choreographed to Holst’s seven movements.

Dan Fleisch, Wittenberg University’s charismatic expert on space physics, will provide narration.

Dramatic readings by Springfield StageWorks will reveal the struggles that individuals have endured through the centuries to do their science.

Everybody remember Galileo’s situation?

“Albert Einstein,” Fleisch said, “struggled with science and belief.”

Fleisch wrote the narration and selected 700 images for The Now Device — static images he’s seen countless times.

“Somehow,” he said, “they make them come alive. They do that Ken Burns thing.”

The last time the SSO performed “The Planets,” during Wilson’s first season in 2003, the orchestra tacked on a movement written long after Holst’s death to commemorate Pluto.

“It’s pretty bad,” Wilson said.

Needless to say, the Pluto movement is now out.

“No one was more happy than I was,” Wilson said, “when we decided that Pluto wasn’t really a planet.”

Contact this reporter at amcginn@coxohio.com.

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