Perhaps the easiest path to follow for an aspiring conductor or a young arts administrator would be to join an established organization to slowly build a reputation in the music world. But Dianna Souder and Piotr Gajewski turned their backs on conventional wisdom four years ago when they founded the Montgomery Chamber Orchestra.
They set out to find a community that could support a professional chamber orchestra and settled on Montgomery County. "We studied the market, looking for a community that was affluent and well educated since the audience for classical music in this country is very small," said Souder, executive director of the orchestra.
If her approach seems analytical, it's a style that she shares with Gajewski, her husband and business partner.
There were a number of motivations behind their decision to move to Montgomery County. "One reason was that we wanted to work together in the same community," Souder said. "And we also believed that there was a real need here." But the strongest attraction for them was the artistic challenge of starting a chamber orchestra.
"It's the same for anyone who has the dream to build something from scratch, to create something new," she said.
When they moved here, they set out with no more than the confidence that Montgomery County would be fertile ground for a new chamber orchestra. For two years the couple ran the orchestra out of their Montgomery apartment, moving the operations into a proper office in December 1986.
The orchestra's budget has swelled from around $75,000 in the 1984-85 season (one-third from ticket sales and the remainder in contributions) to a projected budget of more than $181,000 in the current season. After demonstrating community support in the first season, the orchestra was able to attract major contributors, including Martin Marietta and Comsat.
The number of concerts has grown from just five in the first season to 11 concerts this year. This season's concerts are held at the Red Auditorium of the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg and at the Performing Arts Center on the Rockville campus of Montgomery College. Next year the orchestra's schedule will consist of eight programs, performed in three locations for an ambitious total of 24 concerts.
This year the orchestra inaugurated a chamber music series at the Strathmore Hall Arts Center, featuring members of the orchestra in a more intimate environment. Gajewski introduces each work in these concerts with remarks on its history.
Gajewski, the orchestra's music director, said that the group's growth is no surprise. "Having sat down and laid out a plan on how it would start, it's amazing how close the development of the orchestra resembles what we thought it would be like," said the former physics student turned conductor.
The orchestra is organized as a nonprofit corporation with a board of directors, for whom Souder and Gajewski work. "I don't want to give anyone the impression that this is our orchestra," Souder said. "It's the community's orchestra."
Saying that it is the community's orchestra is different from saying that it is a community orchestra. While a community orchestra made up of amateur musicians may take years -- or decades -- to reach a level of consistently good performances, the Montgomery Chamber Orchestra began with professionals, whose performances have won critical acclaim since the opening season.
"It's difficult to make the transition from amateur to professional status," said the Polish-born Gajewski. "We decided that we were going to do it from the start as a professional group."
The orchestra draws its players from the ranks of professional free-lance musicians in the Washington area. Its concertmaster is violinist Jody Gatwood. The musicians perform music from the 18th century to the 20th century.
But, whether they're playing Bach or Bartok, Schubert or Schonberg, Gajewski uses music that he feels are most effective when performed by a chamber orchestra of no more than 35 musicians. All of the orchestra's concerts will be broadcast on radio station WGMS on consecutive Fridays beginning on the second Friday in May.
Souder and Gajewski met at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, where Gajewski was studying conducting and Souder was studying the violin. Souder recalled with a laugh that "we musicians always thumbed our noses at the conducting students."
Souder, however, had second thoughts about a career as a concert violinist. "Something just wasn't right for me," she said. She was thinking of alternatives, when the idea of orchestra management struck her, as she said, "sort of like a lightning bolt hits you."
Since shifting her focus to the administrative side of the business, Souder has worked with the St. Louis Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and the Savannah Symphony Orchestra in Georgia, where she oversaw the operations for almost 200 concerts a year from 1982 to 1984.
"I have the same passion for orchestra administration that Piotr has for conducting," she said. "I like to feel that I can view it from both sides of the stage."
Souder recognizes that their personal relationship presents challenges as well as opportunities. "It's the first time we've ever worked together," she said. "So there is a lot to learn about each other's style, trying to define areas of authority."
"But," she added with a smile, "I've worked with difficult conductors before . . . . "