Michigan Philharmonic marks 75 years, kicks off new season with birthday bash

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When the pandemic squashed plans for the Michigan Philharmonic to mark its 75th anniversary last year, the orchestra didn't give up on celebrating altogether. It just delayed the party.

Now, a "75 + 1" birthday bash celebration will kick off its new season, which starts Saturday in Canton Township.

"It's a really terrific season. Basically what we'd planned for our 75th we just put on hold and moved everything to this year," said Beth Stewart, the orchestra's executive director.

Nan Harrison Washburn is starting her 23rd season as the Michigan Philharmonic's music director and conductor.

The new season — led by Nan Harrison Washburn, the philharmonic's longtime music director and conductor — will include eight concerts from October through May, often focusing on composers who are still alive and creating along with women composers.

One of those female composers, Kristin Kuster, and her composition, "Rain On It," will be featured at Saturday's concert at the Salem High School auditorium in Canton. The 7:30 p.m. concert will also include pianist Angie Zhang performing Rachmaninoff. Masks are required.

"We try to not only bring you great music but help you do some fun, educational things along the way and really showcase that the great classics are out there, but there is lots of great new music being written by so many cool people," said Stewart.

The Michigan Philharmonic — which will have more than 50 musicians Saturday; the number of musicians varies depending on the concert and venue — was founded in 1945, originally as the Plymouth Orchestra. It later changed its name to Michigan Philharmonic to reflect that it performs all over. It's one of the oldest active orchestras in Michigan.

"We don’t want to be the DSO lite," said Stewart. "We want to be our own thing."

COVID-19 forced the orchestra, like all cultural institutions, last season to pivot its programming to outdoors and online. They did a mix of small outdoor performances. They also streamed previous performances selected by Harrison Washburn, who added more context to them. They also did a "Phil the air with music" series, sending duos and trios of musicians to perform at senior centers and nursing homes.

"Music is such a powerful healing force," said Stewart. "And it helps relieve our anxiety and stress and at the same time makes us feel connected to one another."

But the 2021-22 season will be more like what philharmonic fans are used to. Aside from focusing on current and female composers —  its November concert will feature the works of not just German composer Felix Mendelssohn but his sister, Fanny, also a composer, for example — they'll also have concerts with Mimi Fox, a jazz guitarist from California; African-American composer Andre Myers; and Josanne Francis, a steelpan soloist from Trinidad and Tobago.

By exposing their audiences to new composers, they often end up hearing the classics by Beethoven and Mozart differently, said Stewart.

"It awakens you to think and listen in a new way," she said.


Michigan Philharmonic Blockbuster Birthday Bash

7:30 p.m. Salem High School Auditorium, Canton

For tickets, visit www.michiganphil.org/blockbusterbirthdaybash/