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Dover Symphony Orchestra Celebrates 50 Years

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“Hi! Hon. Look who’s here!”

Manene Mitchler was turned in her front row seat, looking toward the entrance of Dover’s Calvary Church as the sanctuary slowly filled. She waved to friends, and pointed out some familiar faces to her husband, Henry. On this warm mid-October afternoon, they were all there to enjoy “If It’s Not Baroque…” the first concert of the Dover Symphony Orchestra’s 50th season.

Making it to the half-century mark is a tremendous milestone for any arts organization, but especially this one: Almost every musician in the orchestra is a volunteer, and almost all of the organization’s funding comes from its ticket sales.

“With a professional orchestra, people get paid. With a community orchestra, people are there because they love making music,” says Donald Buxton, who has conducted the orchestra for more than 25 years. “I think that brings out a certain passion and gives concerts a different dynamic.”

And just as this is a community orchestra, it has also built a community, as if the commitment of the volunteer musicians has rubbed off on their fans. The Mitchlers have had season tickets for seven years. George Dale Jr. and his wife, Sumiko, try not to miss a show, finding in the orchestra the cultural life they enjoyed while living in Japan. Naomi Poukish has seen her husband, now in his fifth year playing first violin, thrill to reconnect with music.

“Delaware, particularly central and lower Delaware, are not exactly beehives of culture. I just think the community needs something like this,” Henry Mitchler says, stressing that he doesn’t wish to offend anyone. “It can’t all be country music and whatever else. This serves a real need.”

More than 50 years ago, a small group of Kent County residents formed the Kent County Community Orchestra. The group’s first concert at Wesley College was held on May 21, 1968. Over the next two decades, the orchestra presented two concerts each year, changed its name, gained nonprofit status and slowly built a following.

“It was a great effort,” Buxton says. “It began to grow and grow, and it got better and better.”

Buxton stepped in as maestro in 1989. The orchestra continued to evolve, expanding to four concerts each season and further improving its sound. Hundreds of players—teenagers to senior citizens—have been part of this musical family over the past five decades.

“I’ve had some people with me for all 27 years, some for 10 to 15 years, and some are playing for me for the first time this year,” Buxton says.

Despite living in an age of shrinking budgets for the arts and a societal focus on screens instead of symphonies, the orchestra has remained solvent. Only a handful of its musicians are paid. The orchestra’s other major costs are music rental fees—copyright law means many classics can’t just be photocopied at the office store—and rent for rehearsals at a community center and for performances at Calvary Church or the Rollins Center at Dover Downs.

Still, budgets are always challenging. Ticket sales are crucial, but the orchestra is proud that prices have only gone up a few times over the past 50 years. Most adults pay $75 for season tickets. Seniors pay only $55.

There’s also the bake sale that accompanies every performance. In October, the Mitchlers contributed chunky cheesecake brownies. They talked about upcoming concerts and what they would bake and sell for the orchestra’s benefit. In the colder months, they promised, they’d offer Henry’s eggnog cheesecake. “It’s full of rum,” he says. “You have to be over 21 to eat my food.”

Many of the unpaid performers volunteer more than their time. They’re also donors. Describing the current president of the orchestra’s board of directors, Buxton says, “She’s four people in one. She does everything—taking care of ticketing and donations that come in. She’s a real dynamo.”

The dynamo is Nancy Pikulik, who, after welcoming the audience to the opening 2017–18 concert, took a seat among the other cellists in the orchestra.

Pikulik is a music instructor in her regular working hours, but many of the orchestra members work in fields unrelated to music. Naomi Poukish’s husband, Charles, works as a biologist for the state of Maryland.

“There are people who have other jobs during the day,” Poukish says. “They turn into musicians on Monday nights and on performance days.”

Charles Poukish played the violin growing up, but then put the instrument aside for decades. He decided to pick it up again about 10 years ago. He joined the Dover Symphony Orchestra five years ago, and the entire family has benefited from his reconnection with music. Naomi Poukish goes to every rehearsal—and supports the orchestra with small donations, by introducing friends to the orchestra and by never taking a free ticket.

“It’s been a very positive experience for us,” she says.

George Dale Jr. believes music is the universal language. He says classical music has an ability to, as the cliché goes, “soothe the savage breast.” “I love music,” the Dover resident says. “I have three violins, and I can’t play one.”

He and his wife plan to introduce their grandson to the Dover Symphony Orchestra. “It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon,” he says. “It builds character.”

Buxton says his musicians are proud to be the state capital’s orchestra.

“I’ve always said that if people come to one Dover Symphony Orchestra concert, they’ll come back for more,” he says. “That’s what we’ve seen happening.”