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Originally published October 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 3, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Fanfare for Everett

The Everett Symphony Orchestra has grown up with Everett. Decade by decade, it has made its mark. In the 1930s, it was in big, all-city...

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Behind the music

The Everett Symphony Orchestra's first performance was April 14, 1935, at North Junior High School.

Paul-Elliott Cobbs has been the longest-serving conductor in the orchestra's history, having started as conductor and music director in 1984.

The orchestra has a board of directors, 10-12 individuals who set the overall direction for the symphony and its role in the community, as well as help with the organization's finances. Besides Cobbs, the conductor and music director, the leadership includes Ron Friesen, assistant conductor; Jody Matthews, executive director; Jon Richardson, operations manager; and Mabel Eadie, finance director.

The orchestra has an annual budget of $750,000.

Approximately 70-80 musicians comprise the orchestra, drawn from throughout the region and paid per performance.

Approximately five rehearsals are held per concert. Sectional rehearsals are held at various churches, homes and the Everett Symphony rehearsal hall; full orchestra rehearsals are held at the rehearsal hall.

Everett Symphony Orchestra "October Romance"

What, when: 2007-2008 season begins at 8 p.m. Friday, featuring Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, Liszt's "Les Preludes" and Bruch's violin concertos performed by Houston Symphony concertmaster Angela Fuller.

Where: Everett Civic Auditorium, 2415 Colby Ave.

Tickets, information: $12-$36 at the door, at the Everett Symphony office at 2710 Colby Ave., by calling 425-258-1605 or at www.everettsymphony.org.

The Everett Symphony Orchestra has grown up with Everett.

Decade by decade, it has made its mark. In the 1930s, it was in big, all-city cultural festivals that drew hundreds to the Armory building. Sixty years later, it played at the city's centennial. It has accompanied fireworks at Naval Station Everett and at Everett Memorial Stadium. It has played at AquaSox baseball games. It played at the opening of the new Snohomish County administration building, and on one drafty occasion even played on the Boeing freeway, at the opening of a ramp off Highway 526.

When Paul-Elliott Cobbs, now 55, became conductor and music director in 1984, there were about 50 players, and the budget was less than $20,000.

"The orchestra manager carried around the money in a shoebox," Cobbs recalls. "We were a class at Everett Junior College, and people paid tuition."

Cobbs' tenure started a major growth spurt.

Now the annual budget is $750,000. There are more than 14 concerts. The orchestra is one of the few in the region to have its own rehearsal hall. And every musician is paid.

"It's no longer a volunteer orchestra," said Cobbs.

"We have the board to thank for that. They made the decision to go ahead and pay everyone. It's an outward symbol that people respect what you're doing."

Long musical history

The story of a community orchestra that has grown into one of the strongest and most stable regional orchestras in the Puget Sound region dates back to Jan. 30, 1935.

That's the year Raymond Howell, director of bands and orchestras in the Everett public schools, rehearsed a 58-member orchestra comprising local musicians, music teachers and high-school students.

The Everett Symphony Orchestra had its first concert April 14, 1935, at North Junior High School.

Over the years, with a hiatus during World War II, the symphony had a succession of conductors. And in the 1980s and '90s, Cobbs began inviting guest artists of national and international stature to Everett.

Jazz legend Diane Schuur came, as did William Bolcom, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and Everett native. Russian pianist Alexander Ardakov traveled from his home in London to perform Rachmaninoff, and there was a succession of Polish virtuosos, born of Cobbs' conducting experiences in Poland. Piano virtuoso Pawel Skrzypek played Chopin, and noted Polish conductor Jerzy Salwarowski and his son Hubert, a pianist, were other standouts.

The Everett Symphony also took to the road. It has performed in Italy and Austria and last June flew to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Cobbs conducted George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and William Grant Still's "Afro-American Symphony," the subject of his doctoral thesis. And at the end, the audience stood for bravos and ovations. About 100 people from Everett were there; the rest were from New York and environs.

"The standing ovation and the curtain calls wasn't just because they thought we were cute," Cobbs quipped.

Because a conductor presides in the moment, with a job to do and the music as his focus, Cobbs said that during the Carnegie concert it took a while for it all to sink in. The orchestra he started with 23 years ago had gone from being one of the lesser-known orchestras in the region to one that could earn a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall.

"That's a big journey," he said. "One that was bigger than Everett to New York."

It happened in increments. "We took it step by step, every year, and we never took a step back.

"We're committed to excellence," he added. "Everyone is expected to improve each year."

Cobbs said the orchestra is a close-knit group, a kind of extended family for the musicians and also their families.

And he doesn't expect his players to be the best in the world. "They just have to be better than they were last year," Cobbs said. "Considering the average person has been with the symphony an average of 20 years, that makes a difference."

Reflecting its community

The artistic image has paralleled Everett's civic image.

"I think every community needs to experience the best that they can experience," Cobbs said. "Growing up in the inner city, in Detroit, I didn't have the opportunity, sometimes, to experience the best things. But I was given the opportunity through music. I feel about Everett that sometimes Everett is [treated] like the poor child, compared to Seattle. That doesn't have to be.

"That's why I feel Everett deserves the absolute best. And it's been my goal to do that, the whole time."

A lot is demanded of today's orchestra players. This year, they'll perform Burt Bacharach tunes in addition to chamber music, symphonies, ballets and opera selections. The orchestra has done "classic rock" concerts with huge symphonic arrangements of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" and other rock 'n' roll hits. At one concert, Gerry Andal and the Rough Riders joined the orchestra for the electrifying country-western tune "Ghost Riders in the Sky."

"They have to go from doing Mahler to doing Basie," Cobbs said of the players. "If you're square, it's not going to work. You can't just bring up a whole different orchestra to do pops concerts."

Cobbs sees the benefits of careful nurturing of long-term relationships.

He conducted Friday's soloist, violinist Angela Fuller, when she was with Seattle Youth Symphony, and Fuller's mother, Janai, still occasionally plays with the Everett Symphony.

"He knows it takes time; you have to invest yourself, and you have to know your material," said Carol Harkins, co-founder of the Everett Symphony Association. "He knows that, and he knows people, and he knows community orchestras and how you have to invest yourself and take time, and you nourish and cultivate and build."

Rising star at UW

Cobbs' introduction to Everett was at the invitation of Harkins, a then-board member of the Everett Youth Symphony. Cobbs had just finished his master's degree at the University of Washington when Harkins called the university's music department and spoke to the director of the conducting program, searching for leads on a conductor for the youth symphony.

"He paused in our conversation and said, 'May I recommend Paul-Elliott Cobbs? He has just finished his master's degree — brilliantly,' " she said.

For several years, Cobbs conducted both the Everett Symphony and Everett Youth Symphony. "He was instrumental in recommending and selecting the subsequent conductors so that the strength of the youth symphony could carry on and continue to build," Harkins said.

Of the Everett Symphony, Harkins said, "He built an orchestra that musicians are proud to play in. Getting a chair in the Everett Symphony is now competitive."

When Cobbs was director of orchestral activities at Central Washington University in Ellensburg for seven years, he routinely went into high schools to recruit players and do "all-states," conducting the best players from around the state. He's now in his 13th year as music director and conductor of the Tacoma Youth Symphony Association, a group of seven orchestras.

Wife Loma Cobbs is executive director, and under their leadership those symphonies have been to Carnegie Hall twice and two years from now are going to China. On Nov. 27 at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, the Cobbses will receive a lifetime-achievement award in the arts from ArtsFund, formerly the Corporate Council for the Arts.

"They've really taken the youth symphony to an entirely new level of achievement," said James Tune, ArtsFund president and CEO. "It's become a vital part of arts education and music in Pierce County."

Cobbs won the Wendt Award, Everett's highest arts honor, in 1996.

Anchor for cultural life

Lanie McMullin, Everett's executive director for economic development, calls the orchestra "our cultural anchor tenant."

"Arts organizations have come and arts organizations have gone, but they have held their ground and staked out the place of arts in our community," she said. Of Cobbs, she said, "We are so lucky to have him as a member of our artistic community. His reputation throughout the state is stellar."

McMullin, who is also a member of the Washington State Arts Commission, said that when arts funders assess the feasibility of an arts organization or nonprofit in a community, one of the first things they look for is a symphony.

"If a symphony can survive with ticket sales and philanthropic income, there's a chance for others to do so," said McMullin. "Knowledge-based workers want to live in a place where they can see plays, enjoy fine art and listen to music. They're not interested in a community that doesn't possess those elements."

A $1 million donation by John and Idamae Schack in 1999 created an endowment to help stabilize symphony finances. The orchestra went on to conduct a capital campaign that resulted in something few community-based regional orchestras ever do — the orchestra remodeled three storefronts and moved into its own rehearsal hall and offices at 2710 Colby Ave.

"I think our goal has been the same for 23 years," said Cobbs. "That's to be the kind of orchestra that makes our city proud. Sometimes people look down on a smaller town, but it doesn't mean we can't be as excellent as the big boys.

"People in Everett chose to do things the Everett way, and as an orchestra we're an integral part in showing the public that Everett has arts. As Everett gets bigger and more well-known and as it continues to thrive, it's our responsibility as an arts organization to do the same thing artistically. I want to keep up our end.

"I want it to be an organization the city can be proud of."

Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or dwright@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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