The Wayzata Symphony Orchestra Has Brought Lively, Accessible Performances to the Community and Beyond Since 2009

From left, orchestra board members Dawn Anderson and Doug Schmitt with music director Marlene Pauley at Wayzata Community Church, the ensemble’s home base.

Last November, the Wayzata Symphony Orchestra took a break from regular performances at its home at Wayzata Community Church to put on a flash-mob in downtown Minneapolis. Gathered in the IDS Center’s Crystal Court, the 65-member community orchestra performed a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” completely from memory. Beginning with a single cellist and concluding with the full orchestra and choir, the group captivated passersby as it built up to the powerful final verse with the help of the Edina Chorale. “It was very stirring and hard to top,” says Dawn Anderson, violist and member of the symphony’s board of directors, noting the event took about a year of planning.

A flash-mob is likely not a common event on a typical community orchestra’s schedule, but under the leadership of music director Marlene Pauley, the Wayzata Symphony Orchestra always has something fresh and exciting in the works. Past performances have included a tap dancer and an accordion player, and an upcoming concert this year will feature a balloon soloist. The nonprofit’s performances are always free and open to the public, and its mission is to present concerts that are meaningful, Pauley says. “And by ‘meaningful,’ I mean concerts that break the mold; concerts that are different than what you might expect,” she says. “We want to present something that you can’t curate at home on your iPad or your computer.”

(Marlene Pauley and balloon/bassoon pro Paul Humiston; Photo by Dawn Anderson)

The Wayzata Symphony Orchestra is made up entirely of volunteer musicians with varying day jobs. There are music teachers, dentists, accountants and people of a wide range of ages. For nine months out of the year, they devote much of their spare time to rehearsing and putting on about eight concerts each season. “There’s deep, deep passion within that group, because they cannot live without playing music,” Pauley says. “They’ve chosen other ways to make money in their lives, but they can’t do it without making music, and it’s my job to give them the best possible experience.”

The orchestra was formed in 2009 after a rebranding of Alegro Sinfonia, an ensemble that had performed at Wayzata Community Church. The players spent their first season searching for a director and voted to bring Pauley on board beginning in the 2010-11 season. With a background as a clarinetist in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for more than 20 years and an impressive list of achievements, Pauley was the clear best fit. “It’s been blissful,” Pauley says of the experience so far. “I’m living the dream.”

The group spends the bulk of its time rehearsing and performing at Wayzata Community Church, which Anderson says is “a fabulous venue with a nice stage, large audience and very nice acoustics.” In addition to its main shows at the church, the ensemble performs at a couple of venues outside of Wayzata each season and has put on a concert at Orchestra Hall and performances at James J. Hill Days.

The community response has been nothing but positive over the years, with support growing all the time. The concerts drew about 150 people during Pauley’s first season as music director, and now they regularly attract more than 700, filling the house with standing-room-only audiences. Anderson says the orchestra feels very loved. “Audiences go berserk,” she says. “We are totally spoiled and totally used to standing ovations.”

Anderson attributes much of the orchestra’s success to Pauley’s strong vision and creativity. “Marlene brings a lot of passion and energy to the podium. She expects excellence, and when it comes to the performances, she’s very unique in making the music exciting and the concerts illuminating to the public,” Anderson says.

Pauley will often address the audience before each piece to offer a backstory or demonstrate something to listen for during the performance. “You will leave knowing something you didn’t know,” Pauley says of the concerts. “I really want our audience members to be smarter when they leave.”

(Left: photo by Craig Anderson; Right: photo by Dawn Anderson)

While she puts a focus on education and enriching the audience, Pauley says the atmosphere is not at all stuffy, and no one is made to feel out of the loop for not knowing something. Her goal is simply to bring audience members a greater appreciation for the music and let them experience its power firsthand. As for Pauley’s conducting style, Anderson offers a list of adjectives including expressive, passionate, appreciative, honest and committed. Pauley has a clear dedication to preparedness and setting a high standard while maintaining a sense of joviality.

The Wayzata Symphony Orchestra’s tagline is “the orchestra that doesn’t behave,” which Pauley says reflects its commitment to thinking outside of the box in terms of programming. At some concerts, the orchestra recently started incorporating what Pauley called the “red chair” idea, which lets audience members sit among the symphony and experience it from the inside during a piece. “That’s something orchestras don’t do,” Pauley says.

Schmitt Music vice president and co-owner and orchestra board member Doug Schmitt says he particularly enjoys the way Pauley surprises the audience. During one tango-themed concert, she planted two professional dancers in the audience dressed in plain clothes. After inviting attendees to dance during a piece, the duo got up and started moving as if they were untrained. Partway through the performance, the dancers threw off their overcoats to reveal beautiful tango costumes, and showed off their impeccable skills to the delight of the audience. “The woman shed the coat she was wearing and she was in this fabulous tango dress,” Schmitt says. “Marlene is bringing lots of fresh ideas.”

When asked about memorable experiences with the orchestra so far, Pauley names a few, including putting on a free concert at a packed Orchestra Hall and a time during rehearsal when their tuba player was able to spontaneously recite the poem “Jabberwocky.” Perhaps the most special was when Osmo Vänskä, renowned clarinetist and music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, played with the orchestra in October 2014. The ensemble opened with a Sibelius piece to honor Vänskä’s home country, Finland. Then, Vänskä joined them for Mozart’s clarinet concerto, for which he performed a solo. Just before he went onstage, Vänskä whispered to Pauley that the performance was fantastic, and he stayed until the very end of the reception after the concert.

This upcoming season, kicking off in September, is sure to have more memorable moments for the orchestra and audiences alike. Concerts will include a piece written by composer Jordan Cox, inspired by the poetry of Minnesota poet laureate Joyce Sutphen, a visit from Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe and principal cellist Anthony Ross, and a Brahms Requiem concert at Orchestra Hall.

With the group’s talent and dedication, Pauley’s creative vision and the community’s continued support, the Wayzata Symphony Orchestra looks ready to thrive as a unit for years to come. “We are not a group of soloists,” Anderson says. “This is a group of collegial musicians that create something that’s much grander than we could ever do by ourselves.”

(The orchestra performs with vocalist Bruce Henry.)