Okay, music lovers: here's a riddle for you.
What orchestra conductor is both down-to-earth and up in the air?
If you answered Jim Orent, music director of the Brockton Symphony Orchestra and frequent guest conductor of the Boston Pops, you'll be exactly right.
What makes Orent down-to-earth? Unlike many people in his field, he sidesteps the cult of personality that many conductors create for themselves. He's a musician's musician--a regular guy who happens to be a world-class violinist, singer, and, of course, conductor.
"I'm a lifelong student of conducting from the instrumentalist's and singer's perspective," Orent says over dinner prior to a Brockton Symphony rehearsal.
"Decades of direct feedback from my world class colleagues have guided me in honing my craft. It works for them, and it works for me."
Okay, that's the down-to-earth part but what's this business about up in the air?
Orent doesn't just conduct for a living. He's also an airline pilot who has flown for decades and a dedicated skydiver with more than 300 jumps to his credit.
"The parallels between flying a plane and conducting an orchestra are endless," Orent says. "For example, if you get off-track, in both cases you've got to simultaneously figure out where you are right now and get back heading in the right direction, while at the same time keeping the bigger picture, of your final destination, forefront in your mind."
Orent says fate guided him toward conducting and flight, both vertical and horizontal, as a combined career path.
These are simply the things he loves to do, so he does them.
A decade ago, Orent was guest conducting for the Brockton Symphony, which had just embarked on a multi-year program to replace its prior music director. After just one concert, however, the orchestra administration offered him the role of primary conductor.
He accepted, and has never looked back.
Brockton, Massachusetts is a former manufacturing town damaged economically when the shoe industry left New England in search of cheaper labor. Nevertheless, Brockton's orchestra, founded almost 70 years ago, survived, and offers residents and any interested parties an opportunity to hear great music without making the drive into Boston.
The prices are a lot cheaper, too.
"You can buy a ticket to the Brockton Symphony Orchestra for less than it costs to park your car near Symphony Hall in Boston," Orent notes.
Indeed, the top ticket for the Brockton Symphony Orchestra is $25, but if you're 18 or under, stroll right in--no charge.
Orent frequently guest conducts the Boston Pops, which is always a deeply meaningful experience, because he "grew up," as he puts it, in Symphony Hall.
"Stanley Benson, my violin teacher and a Brockton native himself, played for the BSO," he says. "So when I conduct the Pops, I often point to the seats in the first balcony where I used to sit when I was a kid. The people in those seats always love it when I do that.
"And I ask our audience, which young person in those balcony seats will be joining us on stage here in Symphony Hall, as a member of the orchestra, as a singer, or perhaps as a conductor?' And I'm completely serious about that question."
Shuttling between the two orchestras makes Orent aware of how difficult it is for his Brockton group to get things done on a relative shoestring budget.
"Our Brockton musicians come to me and they'll name a piece they want to perform," he says. "While I admire them for thinking big, they often don't know the cost of performance rights, performance materials (sheet music and score), personnel fees for hiring extra musicians, or how much it will cost to rent specific instruments that we'll need for that piece. We do what we can."
They do a lot, actually. Most community orchestras--at least the ones that still exist, because many have folded in recent years--simply cannot pull together to do some of the major symphonic "war horses"--the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto or Brahms First Symphony, to name two. At Brockton? No problem--those pieces constituted the first program of the current season.
"It's an opportunity for audience members to hear great works right in their own hometown," Orent says. "It's also an opportunity for musicians to play some of the great pieces that they might not otherwise have a chance to perform, so everybody wins."
The next performance of The Brockton Symphony Orchestra takes place on Sunday, March 12th at the Christ Congregational Church in Brockton and features the American premiere of composer William Perry's Two Dance Pieces For Trumpet and Orchestra, featuring Wayne King, the beloved principal trumpet of the ensemble.
"Wealthier towns than Brockton have lost their community orchestras, primarily due to funding issues," Orent says. "It's phenomenal that Brockton's musical heritage lives on, and we could not be more proud as its caretakers, steering community efforts to preserve this cultural treasure."
So there you have it--a conductor at once down-to-earth and up in the air.
Only in Brockton.