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Mount Vernon Orchestra Becomes Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic

Ul James continues to lead group as it grows and expands into new venue.

Ulysses James will continue to make music and Mount Vernon residents will still be able to hear an orchestra guided by him. They will just have to travel a little farther.

Beginning with the upcoming 2004-05 season, the group known as the Mount Vernon Orchestra (MVO) will now be known as the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic (WMP). Not only has the group changed its name, but it has also expanded its operations to serve the musical needs of the entire Washington metropolitan area.

This change comes after 33 years of playing in Mount Vernon and Alexandria. The orchestra will continue to perform at Bishop Ireton and the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall & Arts Center in Alexandria, but it will no longer perform in the Mount Vernon area. Instead, it will add a new venue — the Church of the Epiphany at 1317 G Street N.W. in Washington, D.C.

WMP will uphold its tradition of collaboration with the Northern Virginia Community Chorus and will continue to be the orchestra in residence at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College. In December, WMP will further expand its vision by performing Heinrich Schutz's Echo Chorus and Camille Saint-Saën's Oratorio de Noel with The Northern Virginia Community Chorus and The Metropolitan Chorus.

“Ul has the largest orchestra ever — 75 and more are calling to audition,” said Jan Hamlin, former board member and current subscriber. “The board of directors has strong knowledgeable membership — we are working better than ever. I have been on the board since mid-1980s and this is the best group of workers I have seen. Very exciting times, I assure you.”

Hamlin is also excited about the fact that the Church of the Epiphany is half a block from Metro's 13th Street exit. Parking is free on streets on Saturday and Sunday.

“Epiphany is surrounded by restaurants — Red Sage Ceiba, M & S Grill, Old Ebbitt Grill, etc.,” Hamlin said. “The church is very excited about our coming there. Other concerts will be held at Bishop Ireton High School and Rachel Schlesinger Hall, so we are staying with some of the familiar venues.”

THE NEW WMP WILL perform five concerts this season consisting of contemporary and standard classical music featuring some of the area's top soloists. Ulysses James will continue as its music director and conductor.

In addition to the full adult orchestra, the new Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association will continue to support the well established programs of the old Mount Vernon Orchestra Association including: Washington Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Concerto Competition, the Business Partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools at Fort Hunt Elementary School and the Summer Chamber Music Recital Series at The Lyceum.

“We’re not entirely leaving the area,” James said. “The Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic includes Mount Vernon, but we don’t view ourselves as just Mount Vernon. The Mount Vernon name is great for George Washington, but not for an orchestra. We felt that we needed to change our branding.”

James said that the impetus to change began last year when the Washington Symphonic Orchestra invited him to join them. He didn’t want to let the Mount Vernon Orchestra go and they didn’t want to combine, so the deal fell through. The wheels were set in motion, however, and James and the board continued on the path of change.

“The process lasted several months, but for a variety of reasons, we couldn’t make that work,” James said.

ALREADY, THE NAME change has had an effect. James said that they’re up to 75 members. Two years ago, the average size of the orchestra was 45 members.

“People want to join,” James said. “We’re going to continue doing what we’ve always done — play great music with a great group of people.”

Among those joining are a lot of young people — post-graduates.

James said, “The orchestra is getting younger, better and bigger.”

His only concerns with the increased size are the increased costs and the fact that it will be harder to maintain the intimacy of the orchestra.

“I will have the pressure of making sure that I get to know everybody,” James said.

Marjorie Bondarev has her own concerns about the name change. One of the original members of the orchestra, she is afraid that it sounds a little pretentious.

“When people hear philharmonic, they expect a big group,” Bondarev said. She does, however, think that the orchestra is “very nice and has good concerts. I would like to see it grow and have more people come to it.”

Bondarev can remember when the orchestra started in the home of a Waynewood resident who placed an ad looking for musicians who wanted to play. Stephen Brewster, who was a first chair bassist with the National Symphony Orchestra, called to say he didn’t want to play, but would like to conduct. Thus, the Mount Vernon Orchestra was born, practicing first at Sherwood Hall Library and then at St. Aidan’s.

“At first it was just strings, and then we added on other instruments,” Bondarev said.

James took over in 1985, and built the group into what it is today.

“I do support the group, and plan to go to the concerts in Alexandria,” Bondarev said. “The Schlesinger Center is an acoustically marvelous hall.

“You all come with us, because we are expanding and doing great things,” James said.