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A symphonic boro comes alive

The Queens Symphony Orchestra performing with chorus. Courtesy Queens Symphony Orchestra
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In an effort to expand its audience and bring music and art to Queens’ residents, the 59-year-old Queens Symphony Orchestra, the borough’s only professional orchestra and the oldest and largest professional arts organization in Queens, recently announced its first-ever arts and music festival that will bring together 72 cultural and arts groups presenting more than 50 events across the borough in a two-week period April 14-29.

The festival’s theme, “1001 Voices: discover the immigrant experience in Queens,” will focus on the borough’s numerous cultures and languages and it will feature three free concerts at Jamaica Performing Arts Center, Flushing Town Hall and Kupferberg Center at Queens College.

According to Lynda Herndon, QSO’s executive director, the organization transitioned this year from the traditional subscription symphony concert series to a new two-week arts and music festival format that will allow it to present events with arts organizations across the borough.

“We wanted to make Queens known and relevant as a cultural destination point,” Herndon explained. “People usually come into Kennedy or LaGuardia and then they leave and go into Manhattan. We want them to stay here and enjoy what the borough has to offer.”

She added that it was a major shift for the QSO to go from a subscription or paid format to all-free. The bulk of QSO’s funding is from various government sources, said Herndon, including the Department of Cultural Affairs, City Council members, Bloomberg Philanthropies and grants from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

“Now,” she said, “with this change to a non-paid format, I’ll have to go out there and find more grants and corporate funding.” But calling Queens a working-class borough, she said that this was the right way to go.

Further, each concert will also have an associated lecture/demonstration on the Thursday before the concert at 6 p.m.

The Jamaica Performing Arts Center concert, “From the New World,” on April 14 included a red carpet opening featuring Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” with guests vocalist Earthman, and cellist Jung-Hsuan Ko the 2011 Young Soloist winner.

On April 20 at 8 p.m., Flushing Town Hall will present “Songs of a Wayfarer” featuring classical standards in new arrangements of “The Star Spangled Banner” (arrangement by Ralph Farris), Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” (arrangement by Maestro Constantine Kitsopoulos) with mezzo-soprano Francesca Lunghi, Skalkottas’ “5 Greek Dances” and a special new work from composer Justine F. Chen entitled “Philomel” and featuring Metropolitan Opera soprano Jennifer Zetlan.

At the Kupferberg Center, Queens College, the concert “1001 Voices” will debut on April 29 at 3 p.m. as a family friendly concert with Carlos Franzetti’s family Latin opera “Gauchito & the Pony,” exploring musical styles of 10 different Latin American countries told by a narrator, singers, the orchestra and multi-media projections.

Constantine Kitsopoulos, QSO’s music director, said the idea for the arts and music festival first came to him in 2009 after he read a New York Times article on writer and performer Judith Sloan and her Yo Miss! project about teaching immigrant teens and refugees.

Kitsopoulos, a seasoned director who hails from a family of musicians and is currently in his sixth season with QSO, is also spearheading the musical direction on the revival of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” on Broadway.

“Since the economic collapse of 2008, arts organizations need to collaborate with each other to continue to offer programs to the public,” said Kitsopoulos on the orchestra’s change to a festival format. “We also wanted to find out about the various types of arts organizations in the borough.”

Herb Chain, president of QSO, has been involved with the organization for more than a decade.

“This is the first time QSO has taken role as not only performing but also serving as the hub for over 70 arts organizations throughout the borough that are involved in festival,” Chain said. He added that this is a new role that QSO is playing and that it’s a great way to help brand and get word out about the orchestra.

“There’s no downside to the festival. I’m absolutely thrilled with the direction of the orchestra.”

All 72 festival participant listings and contact information, including the festival’s calendar of events from April 14-29, can be found at queenssymphony.org. For more information on times, dates and events, residents can also call 718-570-0909.

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