July 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

DSO celebrates 50 years of Meadow Brook

A 1964 sign advertises the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's inaugural year at the Meadow Brook Music Festival. (Meadow Brook Music Festival)

It was a verdant area of woods and rolling hills where the closest thing resembling music was birdsong.

That all changed 50 years ago on the evening of July 23, 1964, when Detroit Symphony Orchestra Music Director Sixten Ehrling gave the downbeat to the overture of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger.” The Meadow Brook Music Festival, which was to be the DSO’s summer home for nearly 30 years, was born.

To commemorate the occasion, the orchestra will return to the site for one night, almost a half-century to the day of that initial concert. On Thursday, guest conductor Michael Stern (son of the late violinist Isaac Stern) will lead the forces in Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmila Overture,” Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” Ravel’s “Tzigane” and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The latter two pieces will feature white-hot violinist Joshua Bell.

It will be a nostalgic night for many at the 8,000-capacity venue — both on stage and in the audience.

Bass trombonist Randy Hawes, who joined the DSO in 1985, fondly recalls the orchestra’s eight-week annual stay at Meadow Brook.

“I remember when my wife and I were first dating, she’d be sitting on the lawn with her friends,” Hawes says. “Everyone would arrive early with their picnic baskets and wine for dinner. I’d go up there and meet her on the lawn, then come down and play the concert. Then I’d often go up again at intermission.”

Larry Hutchinson, a DSO double bassist since 1983, shares Hawes’ sentiment. He remembers Meadow Brook as an inviting place where families — including his own — could enjoy the bucolic surroundings amid the joy of music.

“My wife and our kids would come out,” he says. “We would bring our dinner, the kids would lie out on the lawn and loved rolling down the hills, but they got exposed to a whole lot of classical music.

“One of the things I dearly miss about Meadow Brook is seeing the families out there and that opportunity to introduce young people to both classical and pop music.”

Hearing a symphony on a warm, star-studded night can be romantic, but playing outdoors has its perils, both musicians say. For instance, high humidity can play havoc with pitch.

“Intonation becomes really hard,” Hutchinson says of his instrument. “The bow hair stretches and the rosin doesn’t catch.”

Although the pavilion generally protects concertgoers from rain, a downpour, coupled with high winds, sometimes stopped the music, Hawes says.

“If the wind started whipping up and the mist from the rain started coming in on stage, the string players would start freaking out because their instruments are so expensive and they can’t let them get wet,” he says. “So they’d leave the stage and the concert would stop.”

Hutchinson recalls an episode when the electricity failed and the musicians couldn’t read their sheet music. But the melody, he says, played on.

“It was during the Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ which is a very big deal for the horns,” he says. “The horn players just kept playing because they knew the music so well. But for the rest of us, either we remembered it or made it up as we went along. The lights came back on, but the orchestra hadn’t stopped playing.”

Because of what DSO president and CEO Anne Parsons calls “economic considerations,” the DSO ended regular concerts at Meadow Brook in 1992, although they’ve played there sporadically since. Meadow Brook is owned by Oakland University and has been managed by Palace Sports & Entertainment since 1994.

The DSO keeps busy in summer with annual gigs at Greenfield Village and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, among other appearances. But is it possible for the DSO to return to Meadow Brook, say on a limited basis of one or two weeks each year?

Parsons is guardedly optimistic. In her position, she’s keenly aware that music is a business as well as an art. Nostalgia alone is not enough to fill seats and make the stay profitable.

“Once you get away from a tradition like that, the question is how you would rebuild it,” she says.

“There are financial issues, and a big part of that are ticket sales. But we’re very excited about going back this summer so that we can put our toe back in the water doing classical fare at what was our summer home, celebrate 50 years, and see where that takes us.”

Hawes and Hutchinson are enthusiastic about a more expanded presence at the venue.

“I’d love that,” Hawes says. “Maybe an intensive couple of weeks doing three or four programs a week, with one or two pops and some really great warhorses.”

Hutchinson adds there’s another incentive for boosting the orchestra’s time at Meadow Brook.

“It’s out in the northern suburbs, where we don’t much play anymore,” he explains. “I think it would help draw many new people into the DSO family that probably don’t think of us a whole lot now.”

DSO's 50th Anniversary Concert at Meadow Brook

7:30 p.m. Thursday

Doors open at 6 p.m.

3554 Walton Blvd. at Adams Road, Rochester Hills.

$15 lawn; pavilion seats

start at $25

(313) 576-5111 or (800) 745-3000

dso.org or palacenet.com.

Since 1992, the DSO has made sporadic appearances at Meadow Brook, ... (Kiya Gibbons / Special to The Detroit News)
Opening night July 23, 1964, drew more than 5,000 people to hear Sixten ... (Meadow Brook Music Festival)