A leap of faith brought Larry Loh to Syracuse; the energy of a once-broke orchestra kept him

Syracuse, N.Y. -- When the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2011, the musicians lost their steady jobs. And the music world took notice.

Larry Loh, music director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, called Syracuse whenever he needed a sub to fill a spot in his Scranton-area orchestra.

"We knew there were a lot of good musicians here not working at the time and we were happy to support them and have them come play with us," Loh said.

Loh didn't know it, but he was laying the groundwork for his new home.

Those Syracuse musicians, cast adrift by the implosion of the SSO, decided to form a massively pared-down new orchestra for Syracuse: Symphoria.


As professional orchestras across the nation struggle to make ends meet, the Syracuse musicians embraced their new reality. They cut most management positions. They went from a nearly $6 million budget to less than $2 million. And they took huge pay cuts: the base salary went from around $30,000 to around $10,000.

They needed a music director. It seems like a job no one would want: a newly formed orchestra, built from the ashes of a messy public bankruptcy with a tiny budget and an uncertain future.

But it also had a fresh, magnetic energy that comes when you give artists control of their own destiny.

Loh felt it when he first had a guest-conducting gig with the group. At the time, Loh was based in Pittsburgh, where he was the resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and also was the music director of the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic. (Conductors often hold positions with multiple orchestras).

But when he got the call to come lead Symphoria, Loh didn't know he was in the running. Though he was established in Pittsburgh, where he, his wife and two kids had made their home, he felt the pull of the new thing that musicians were building in Syracuse.

"It was really exciting," Loh said. "It was a leap of faith."

He came to Syracuse in 2015. And he decided to stay. Loh's contract was to be up in 2018, but he just accepted a new contract to stay with the Syracuse orchestra through 2022. Loh also has taken a new job as music director of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra (and is ending his tenure with the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic).

Loh, who is this month making his debut guest conducting the Boston Pops at Tanglewood, found Symphoria's structure refreshing. Artists make more of the decisions about music choices and programming.

For example: interest began bubbling up about playing a program with a fiddler. So they asked around - who knows a good fiddler? The response came back: We know exactly who. Several of the violinists knew Maria Millar, a dancing fiddler who did 170 performances with the iconic Riverdance show. They booked her to play with the orchestra in March.

And musicians, too, pick shows they know people will love, and show up for: Disney, Elton John, Journey, Superhero theme songs, Wizard of Oz, and, of course, the classics.

Programs are decided by a committee that is mostly musicians, but also includes a staff member, an academic and a community member.

As Loh talks about his time with the Symphoria, he sits in a borrowed conference room full of law books. The orchestra's office space is donated. Jon Garland is at Loh's side. Garland, who plays French horn in the orchestra, is another example of how Symphoria is different. Garland is on the Symphoria board of trustees and does administrative work that previously would have been done by a staff member. Symphoria has only a handful of staff that are fulltime non-musicians.

"As a result, there's a bigger sense of literal ownership," Loh said. "If there's something that needs to be done and the musicians see that, they're more proactive."

The musicians wanted Fabio Mechetti, the previous music director, to come back to guest conduct. So they asked. And he came.

"That invitation is coming directly from the musicians, primarily. And I think that gives it a special feeling," Loh said.


Loh, 47, intended to become a doctor when he started college at the University of Rochester. He went there so he could continue studying music while working on a pre-med curriculum. His mother was a professional violinist and his father was a radiologist in Carlisle, Pa.

But Loh felt the pull of music more than medicine. He switched from pre-med to liberal arts with an emphasis in music. He also studied business management. It wasn't until his senior year that he got the conducting bug. He took a class at Eastman School of Music, then went to Indiana University where he got a master's degree in choral conducting. Then Loh went on to study orchestral conducting at Yale.

As he talks about leading three different orchestras, a steady guest conducting schedule, and raising two active kids with his wife, Jennifer, you can see how he'd be just fine in a busy medical practice or operating room.

Symphoria is still a risk for Loh. When the musicians started Symphoria, they took massive salary cuts as a sacrifice to keep Syracuse's music alive. And they hoped to raise their pay in a few years. The finances have not improved as quickly as everyone hoped, Garland said.

But everyone sitting behind a music stand knows that. There are no surprises. The musicians are the shareholders.

And each one is also a piece of the bigger community, always building relationships that keep music alive in Syracuse. One of the reasons Loh thinks Symphoria has been able to survive here is the connection the orchestra has made to the schools and young people and the strength of the local school music programs.

"It's definitely not like that in other cities," Loh said. And he knows. Both of his kids play instruments in the F-M school district.

Kids under 18 and under are free to all Symphoria concerts. Loh's family often has to take two cars to the concerts because so many of his children's friends want to come, too.

Maybe, too, it's because Loh can be something of a showman. It's not unheard of for him to appear in costume for a concert - like dressing as Star Wars characters to conduct a program of John Williams' music from the movies.

Earlier this year, there was a program built around the theme of red and the Oscars for February. The musicians had selected "Red Violin" (an Oscar winner), and some other pieces. They needed to fill a gap. Loh had always wanted to conduct Samuel Barber's "Symphony no. 1," so he suggested it.

The mix, performed in front of full audience, turned out to be just perfect.

"I loved being on the podium for it," Loh said.


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