A professional singing career, Joan Gavigan readily admits, was never in the cards.
“Had I had a really good voice, I could have been a Valkyrie,” laughs the native New Yorker, who, hailing from a family with longstanding interests in jazz and classical, studied music as an undergraduate. “But it wasn’t going to happen, so I got involved with a lot of amateur groups over the years.”
As such, it comes as no surprise that within a year of joining the congregation of historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Ellicott City, in 2003, Gavigan was exercising her vocal prowess as a member of the choir. A few years later, Gavigan broadened her endeavors to include performing with the bell choir on the second Sunday of every month.
Helping to fuel her musical passions was Gavigan’s desire to promote greater awareness of the power of song – a point to which she’s seen testament time and again as an attorney representing children in CINA cases in Baltimore County.
The Orchestra at St. John's rehearses at home: St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City
[Photo courtesy of Ron Mutchnik]
“The clients of mine who have some interest in music seem to always improve,” she explains. “I’ve seen kids who’ve had mental health issues show an amazing turnaround when they pick up an instrument and they learn to get some discipline. We have so many cuts in the public school system. They try to cut the arts, and I think that’s a foolish move, because it really impacts the way kids learn.”
Possessed of such a philosophy and background, Gavigan naturally seized the opportunity to serve on the Board of Directors for the fledgling Orchestra of St. John’s. Billed as “Howard County’s Only Professional Chamber Orchestra,” the Orchestra of St. John’s is the brainchild of Ron Mutchnik, a professional violinist who began performing at the church years ago at the invitation of St. John’s Music Director Nancy Stavely. Mutchnik – who serves as the orchestra’s Artistic Director – felt that Howard County had developed enough, both in terms of population and education, to support a chamber orchestra of its own. And so, with Stavely’s support, he proposed the concept of forging such an ensemble to the church’s music committee.
“We didn’t want to compete with the Columbia Orchestra, which is a community orchestra but plays bigger symphony works,” notes Mutchnik, who, along with Stavely, drew upon years’ worth of networking to cull the 15 to 30 professional musicians required to fill out the ensemble. “We felt there should be a niche for a chamber orchestra.” The committee agreed, and on November 9, 2008 – less than two years after Mutchnik’s initial proposal – the Orchestra of St. John’s gave its inaugural concert in the old church to an audience of more than 200 people.
The structure lends itself well to the orchestra’s repertoire of “classical music from the Baroque era to the twenty-first century,” according to Gavigan. “St. John’s has wonderful acoustics for a building constructed in the middle of the 19th century – hence, the choice of such a venue.”
“Today, they have to build these special buildings and spend millions of dollars to get what came naturally back then,” Mutchnik adds.
Both Gavigan and Mutchnik have been pleasantly surprised – particularly given these tough economic times – by the level of community support the orchestra has already received, including a grant from the Howard County Arts Council as well as corporate sponsorship from the likes of The Columbia Bank and The S.T. Kim Company, LLC, Certified Public Accountants. Gavigan, in both her professional and personal capacities, hopes that such strong initial support will foster a greater love for the music.
“There’s something that’s so different in hearing classical music in person versus a CD,” she says. “We have an opportunity to [bring] really good music [to] the masses.” Moreover, classical music, she contends, with its complexity and broad emotional spectrum, offers an appeal that spans generations. “It’s something that parents and kids and grandparents – everybody – can go to and enjoy and not have to fight about, you know?”
“When I was growing up, they talked about something called the generation gap, and I’m seeing less and less of that,” she adds. “I know it happens, but the more families share common interests . . . there’s a lot less of that.”
To illustrate her point, Gavigan recalls a curious sight from years earlier; while spending a semester in Germany as an undergrad, she had gone to see Gotterdammerung, the last of the four operas that comprise Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
“There were actually kids my age scalping tickets to go in to see the opera,” she says. “And I thought: Why don’t they do that here [in the United States]? Why don’t they have the same appreciation?”
Four-thousand miles, a few decades and six children of her own later, Gavigan believes the answer lies in the music’s absence from most homes. “We love rock because we hear it on the radio all the time,” she maintains. “The people who really appreciate classical music are the ones whose parents play it all the time.”
Mutchnik plans to establish a three-concert series, which, in time, he hopes might blossom into five or six performances each year. The orchestra’s second concert – scheduled for 4:00 p.m., Sunday, March 15 – will honor Howard County’s music teachers; the program will include Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for Strings, for which the orchestra will be joined by a handful of award-winning music students from around the county. Tickets are $15, with all children 17 and under admitted free in the company of one adult.
“It’s just nice to get away from the world, sometimes, and listen to something beautiful,” says Gavigan. “I think it brings you that much closer to the divine, no matter where you are, what faith…or lack thereof.”