Passing the Baton

Published: Jun 9, 2021

By: Tom Moore

(orchestra performing before audience)

When conductor Robert Gerle raised his arms and gave the downbeat to the Overture to Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner on December 11, 1972, he might not have predicted that the orchestra in front of him—now known as the UMBC Symphony—would become such an important part of UMBC’s culture. The program, which was presented in what then was known as Gymnasium One, continued with Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Gerle, a noted violinist who had taught at Ohio State and Peabody, had been enticed to UMBC—in an era when the nascent department of music didn’t even offer a degree—by the opportunity of starting a string program and building an orchestra. To get enough players on the stage, Gerle’s solution was to engage community members and UMBC students, and so the UMBC Community Orchestra, as it was then known, came into existence. 

Gerle conducting in a photo of a 1972 issue of The Retriever.

“In addition to all of these wonderful musical journeys in the orchestra, it was a place to make lasting friendships,” recalls Ronald Mutchnik ’80, music. “Years later, I came back to visit and there was Gerle rehearsing Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony with many of the same people—such was the loyalty he and the symphony engendered.”

When trumpeter Wayne Cameron, who was then conducting UMBC’s wind ensemble as well as the Frederick Symphony, heard of Gerle’s retirement, he approached the department to ask about taking on the orchestra. Time passed, and Cameron, hearing nothing, assumed he had been passed over. Shortly before the start of the fall semester he asked the department chair who had been selected. The chair replied incredulously and said, “Didn’t you hear? We picked you!”

Cameron renamed the UMBC Symphony and increased the number of players from about 55 to about 70. He also broadened the scope of repertoire, introducing more American, contemporary, and lesser-known works. “Conducting the UMBC Symphony was a distinct privilege,” he recalls. “To work with so many talented students and community members was a special delight.”

When Cameron stepped down in 2001, UMBC’s overall enrollment had more than doubled from Gerle’s era, and the symphony’s new conductor, clarinetist, and faculty member E. Michael Richards, opened up more opportunities for student participation. As a result, the number of community players decreased.

Richard Sigwald ’03, music—who played trumpet with the symphony during Richards’ entire tenure of two decades—says, “He challenged students and community members to work together to create an extremely rewarding performance experience. He was extremely passionate when conducting as it was the only time I ever heard him raise his voice. If the brass weren’t at the volume he desired, he would storm off the podium and tell us that he could ‘play louder than all of us on his clarinet.’ Once we performed more to his liking, he would return to the podium and quip my favorite line of his, ‘I’m not angry, I’m excited!'”

Richards conducting a rehearsal in the Linehan Concert Hall in 2017. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11.

Violinist Michelle Ko ’10, music, echoes many of Sigwald’s thoughts. “Maestro Richards is so knowledgeable and passionate about the compositions, and it was magical to watch him lead the orchestra.” Ko continues, “Richards had an invaluable impact on my artistic growth and career success.”

A highlight of Richards’ years came in 2016, when the symphony performed Stravinsky’s Firebird suite during UMBC’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, with fireworks going off overhead. Richards jokes that he thought his back was getting singed from the fireballs going off near the stage.

Although retired, Richards looks forward to continuing being part of the university community. In the meantime, the Department of Music has opened a search for a visiting lecturer in orchestral studies to ensure the leadership of the Symphony transitions to experienced and capable hands.

Header image: E. Michael Richards conducting the UMBC Symphony at the Linehan Concert Hall in 2018. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11.

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