A musical rebirth

The Windham Orchestra split from the Brattleboro Music Center in 2020, emerging from the pandemic as the Windham Philharmonic with a new series of donation-funded concerts at the Latchis and grand plans for what its leader, Hugh Keelan, calls ‘a scale of operations massively more nontraditional’

BRATTLEBORO — In 2020, more than a half a century since the Windham Orchestra began at long-defunct Windham College (now the campus of Landmark) in Putney, the organization split from its longtime parent entity, the Brattleboro Music Center (BMC).

And, after pandemic-enforced darkness, with a first concert last month, it has reemerged into the local music world as the Windham Philharmonic.

Since 2010, the group has been led by Hugh Keelan, who introduced staged performances of opera such as Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Il Trovatore, Tosca, and Turandot at the Latchis Theatre, where the Philharmonic is producing a series of by-donation concerts as its 2021-22 season.

Now the orchestra's regular home, the Latchis, particularly its executive director, Jon Potter, has been notably encouraging and supportive of him and the ensemble, Keelan says.

In the first concert “were many familiar faces, supporters of the former Windham Orchestra who clearly turned out to support the ambitions and new direction of the Philharmonic,” says Keelan.

That direction, he explains, and the move toward establishing itself as its own nonprofit, was fueled by a desire to pursue “a scale of operations massively more nontraditional” than had previously been expected.

Thus, the new Windham Philharmonic website establishes its vision boldly, while expressing ample gratitude to its forebears.

It has not been a bump-free ride. Roughly three years ago, the Windham Orchestra was compelled to dismiss one of its players - oboist, composer, and retired teacher Zeke Hecker, about whose inappropriate behaviors much has been revealed in recent months. Amid allegations of such misconduct years earlier, Hecker was let go from the Windham Orchestra, and it was agreed upon solidly and universally by both the Windham Orchestra and its sponsor, the BMC, that he would no longer be involved in either entities' musical productions.

Hecker's wife, Linda Hecker, was serving as president of the new Windham Philharmonic when she was removed from the board following the report published in The Commons [“No more secrecy,” Voices, Aug. 11]. Keelan notes what he described as an unfortunate anomalous incident that involved an open call for musicians to join an open public participation opportunity with the new nonprofit. Zeke Hecker showed up and was allowed to stay through the session. He was not asked back; nor will he be, Keelan assures.

But despite the organization's associations that some in the community perceive as painful, is it possible for the Philharmonic to also play a role in the community's journey through that pain?

The organization, Keelan says, “does what art does well: It not only reflects the societal mores and struggles of its time, but it also reaches toward healing.”

Concert program choices of the Windham Philharmonic reflect a need for healing - in our community and beyond - showcasing works far outside the classical canon: a major work by an African-American female composer and another by a Chickasaw musician and composer.

“We aim to offer a voice,” Keelan explains - “a voice for expression, an avenue for facing complex subjects, a vehicle through which to examine the basics of right and wrong.”

“By conversing through art, by sharing and listening, we can examine human fundamentals - tribal conflict, interpersonal conflict, love, death, modes of living,” he adds.

“We are committed to transforming ourselves, and to becoming influential, necessary, a space of great pleasure, fulfillment and artistry,” Keelan writes in a vision that is clearly from his gut.

“Right now, the Windham Philharmonic is reformulating, reimagining, and looking at how to be of service in this world that seethes and roils as we maintain the physical distancing that currently is the life-saving contribution we can make,” the organization continues.

“Here are our values in this period of emergence: We are committed to love and acceptance, beauty and service. We are committed to being musicians who can hear what is actually happening.”

A worldly journey to Brattleboro

Born on Kingston-upon-Thames in England, Keelan, 63, began his life in music at age 8, on the piano. He'd then make his mark as a violist before launching a career as a conductor.

Having studied music at Cambridge University, he went on to earn the coveted Harkness Fellowship to study conducting at Indiana University and the Mannes School of Music. Remaining in New York for private study, he worked with the American Opera Center at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music.

He's conducted the St. Louis Symphony, La Fenice in Venice, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague, among others. In the opera house (Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, and Metropolitan Opera) Keelan has worked with such luminaries as Sirs Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis, and Peter Hall, as well as with Andrei Șerban, Maurice Sendak, and Tom Stoppard.

With gigs around the world, Keelan had based himself in Brooklyn whence he moved to Brattleboro in 1995: He and his wife at the time had a toddler son whom they wanted to raise among trees, in the mountains.

Since then, he has taught and conducted in the region and has helped shape the progress of Southeast Vermont's primary orchestra.

'Trumpet and drums and wonderfulness'

A perennial non-traditionalist, Keelan has delved over the years into a host of unconventional, innovative, inventive, collaborative orchestral productions.

He says that in all his work, he's sought to dissolve the hard lines that tend to separate amateur and professional, something that both he and the Windham Philharmonic's board of directors intend to continue.

“We've wanted to be of service to the community at large, to make ourselves essential to community in a broader sense” and to attract a wide range of audiences and musicians, Keelan explains.

“Agility and scale matter,” Caroline Cole, a Philharmonic trombonist and board member, adds. “We want to expand our ability to do other partnerships in a more agile way,” to break the mold in which symphonic music tends to be crammed.

“We want to listen to what's being expressed,” Keelan says, asserting that “it's toxic to be exclusive.”

“We build our mission from that wish,” Cole adds.

Hailing from northern Vermont, Cole earned a master's degree from the Boston Conservatory and ended up in Brattleboro to pursue circus arts. She is now focused on music.

“I want to be a part of making the Philharmonic's values real - to create a place where people feel like they belong,” she adds.

Such was the Windham Philharmonic's inaugural concert in November. “Trumpet and drums and wonderfulness. How moving it was at all measures,” Keelan recalls. “We had superlative attendance, considering the pandemic.”

Donations revealed the audience's appreciation, he added.

The Philharmonic prepares now for Monday, Dec. 6, an evening featuring “The Oak,” a work by African-American composer Florence Price.

This piece was unpublished during Price's lifetime and has only recently begun to be performed. Eric Thomas, music director at The Putney School, will be a special guest on the program. A man of color with a deep musical education, he will offer a look at Price's life and a commentary on her work.

Completing the program will be J.S. Bach's Contrapunctus III from The Art of Fugue and Sonata no. 18 by Giovanni Gabrieli.

Following the concert will be a few programs now in the works, including a collaboration with an arts entity in Wilmington.

Then in February, the ensemble performs Jerod Impichcha̱achaaha' Tate's “Ghost of the White Deer,” a narrative orchestral piece based on lore of the Chickasaw People of Oklahoma, with bassoon soloist Diane Lipartito.

'It goes deeper'

When asked about the ever-increasing age of symphony audiences and the seemingly slim number of younger people therein, Keelan gets a little feisty.

“People always have worried this issue,” he says, but what such music offers “meets a deep human need.”

“This is not entertainment; it goes deeper,” Keelan continues. “A deep alchemy happens.”

Cole adds her own anecdote.

“As a kid I often went to hear the Vermont Symphony. There was a lot of hand-wringing then about the lack of young people in attendance,” she recalls.

She also remembers standing up and saying, “I'm right here!”

Cole has heard from 30-something peers that orchestral music is “cool, beautiful, moving.” She sees no need to dumb it down, to try to make it more appealing to younger music lovers.

“No apology is needed [for this art],” Cole adds.

There's not a big cushion under the Philharmonic. Keelan teaches and guest-conducts; Cole works in Brattleboro and is lead trombone for the 215th Army Band of the Massachusetts Army National Guard.

But both are passionate about their shared orchestral home.

“We are committed,” says Keelan.

For Keelan - and perhaps for all who are committed to the Windham Philharmonic - life and art are not distinct. They're just different words for a passionate exploration of beauty and transcendence.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates