The origin story of the Willamette Valley Symphony sounds just like one of the lessons Sean Paul Mills tries to teach his arts entrepreneurship students at Oregon State University.

"Find the void," Mills tells them. "Find the gap. Find that one thing that doesn't exist in the community and fill that."

It's more than a lesson plan to Mills: That's essentially how he founded the symphony, which continues its season this week with concerts in Albany and Corvallis.

Back in 2007, Mills was the trailing spouse when his wife, Susana Rivera-Mills (now OSU's vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies), came to the university.

"I didn't have a sense of what I was going to be doing," Mills recalled in an interview this week with The E. But he kept his eyes open.

"After a couple of months, I realized there was a void in the musical community," he said: There was no slot between the Corvallis Youth Symphony and the Corvallis-OSU Symphony, no place for relatively skilled amateur musicians of a certain age to gather to perform the classical repertoire.

Pay attention, arts entrepreneurs: Mills played a hunch and took a shot. He started spreading the word about forming a small orchestra. 

The first rehearsal drew nearly three dozen musicians. More came to the second. Mills thought he might be onto something. He asked the musicians about whether they just wanted to gather to play music or if they wanted to work toward a performance; either answer would have been fine.

But "the overwhelming response was, 'let's perform.'"

That first concert, Mills recalled, included "mostly overtures," and — fittingly enough — Beethoven's First Symphony. It also included selections from the Verdi opera "The Force of Destiny," a piece Mills often turns to when launching a new venture.

"I didn't start with a preconceived notion of the orchestra would become and where it would go," he said. "I was just open to seeing where it took us. ... There was really no limit to where we could go."

Well, after a decade, here's how that journey has gone: The Willamette Valley Symphony still is a going concern, with an ambitious yearly schedule of five concerts (each concert is performed in both Albany and Corvallis) and a variety of side projects.

These days, Mills said, soloists contact him to see if they can perform with the orchestra. And Mills himself keeps his eyes open for music that will challenge the increasingly strong musical muscles of his orchestra. (This weekend's program include Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 1, with soloist Alice Blankenship, C.P.E. Bach's Symphony No. 1 and Schubert's Fifth Symphony.)

Mills, 51, said part of his job as the orchestra's artistic  director and conductor is to "really pay attention to the pulse of the community that we're serving." And, for Mills, that's two separate communities: The musicians in the orchestra and its audiences.

The musicians, he noted, "are coming because they want to come, so I want to know what the players want to play." Some of the musicians have played with the orchestra all 11 seasons.

And, he said, he makes a point of trying to connect with concertgoers. (He continues to present talks about each program before the concerts begin.)

"I don't hide in the green room before or after," he said. "I want to hear that feedback."

Mills and the orchestra made a couple of key decisions early on that have helped the orchestra develop, he said: For one thing, the orchestra tries, to the extent possible, to perform on the same weekends each year.

And, he said, the orchestra decided early on to perform each concert twice; the Saturday performance typically is in Albany and the Sunday performance in Corvallis. "If you're spending that much time working on something," he said, "it seems a shame to perform it just once."

As he rehearses with the orchestra, Mills tries to strike "the correct balance between teaching and letting them explore the music." Conductors, of course, have a role to play — but part of that role is knowing when to let the ensemble "do what an orchestra is supposed to do, and that's play."

"The conductor should find a way to stay out of the way as much as possible."


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