- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2001

Stephen Simon knows the Washington Chamber Symphony has made an impact when grown men approach him in the supermarket and sing snippets of songs the symphony performed many years ago.
Those moments could not be more satisfying for Mr. Simon, the symphonys musical director for all of the groups 25 years, because part of his self-appointed mission is to recruit a new generation of classical music aficionados.
During the past 2 1/2 decades, the symphony has evolved from a vehicle for lesser-known works by composer George Frideric Handel to a musical force that both educates and entertains local residents with affordable, challenging fare.
The symphonys grand finale of its 25th-anniversary season, to be held Friday at the Kennedy Center, will include Handels "Zadok the Priest," Joseph Haydns "Te Deum" and Johann Sebastian Bachs "Toccata and Fugue in D minor," plus Handels "The Trumpet(s) Shall Sound" from "Messiah" for seven trumpets.
"We wanted a retrospective that was representative of the kind of music we perform," says Mr. Simon, whose classical music break came in 1968 when he conducted a Grammy-nominated recording of Handels "Solomon" in Vienna. "This was the best way to say to our audience, 'This is who we are and what we do to make ourselves different."
Part of what typifies the symphony is its eclectic choice of material.
"Its fun to look for repertoires nobody does," says Mr. Simon, who studied at Oberlin College in Ohio and Yale and served as Josef Krips apprentice conductor at the San Francisco Symphony in 1961. "We perform all the operas and oratorios from Handel that nobody else performs."
The veteran conductor brings a small team of guest musicians, along with the 35-member symphony, Friday to celebrate the passing of 25 years. Among them are the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir, the Howard University Choir, organist William Neil and mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead.
The concert will open with a piece by Handel, a fitting selection because the composers work inspired the symphonys creation.
In 1976, then-Kennedy Center Artistic Director Martin Feinstein approached Mr. Simon about creating a festival orchestra to highlight Handels work. Mr. Simon, who was serving as the musical director of the Handel Society of New York, seemed an obvious choice.
The symphony, then known as the Handel Festival Orchestra, sprang to life from that assignment.
"Then the Handel audience thinned out," Mr. Simon says. "It wasnt enough to sustain our organization."
The Handel Festival Orchestra eventually became the Washington Chamber Symphony, but not before it originated a number of enduring musical programs.
The festival spurred a Chamber Orchestra Series in 1982 and a Recitalist Series a year later, which allowed musicians to thrive in solo or small ensemble performances.
In 1987, it began its most creative and rewarding program with the premiere of the Kids Love Music Too program, later known as Concerts for Young People.
Mr. Simon points to those concerts, created along with his wife, Bonnie Ward Simon, as one of the symphonys crowning achievements. He calls them "steppingstones" to new audiences.
"We try to make the music interesting and kind of silly and fun," he says.
Repeated exposure to classical music can forge a strong musical bond in a young listener that lasts into adulthood, he says. That is, if a parent is by the childs side to oversee the education.
"Unless the parent accompanies the child an isolated event," Mr. Simon says.
"Music is ephemeral. Now you hear it, now you dont," he says. "People have a hard time digesting music. Theres a lot more to pull together and store in our personal memory system ."
Through the years, the symphony has struggled to keep its performances both for children and adults engaging and affordable.
"It is a constant money-losing proposition," Mr. Simon says of the symphony, which generates one-third of its budget through ticket sales. "The gala is more expensive than Id like it to be, but Id like to have our expenses covered."
The symphonys 25th-anniversary show will end with the Kennedy Center Concert Hall flooded with musicians to provide a "surround-sound" take on Peter Ilich Tchaikovskys "1812 Overture."
Its a fitting end to a concert and a quarter-century of musical expression, Mr. Simon says.
"We have no deep musical messages to send or points to prove," he says.

WHAT: Washington Chamber Symphonys 25th-anniversary concert
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Friday
TICKETS: $25 to $50
PHONE: 202/452-1321


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