New York Scandia Symphony endures

Best to follow the beat of your own (Scandinavian) drum

Scandia Symphony

Photo courtesy of New York Scandia Symphony
Above: Danish transplant Dorrit Matson serves as the music director and conductor of the New York Scandia Symphony.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Although I’ve lived in New York City my entire life and am a proud descendent of Scandinavians, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I learned about the existence of the New York Scandia Symphony.

It wasn’t because they are a new organization that slid under my radar. They have been performing here for over 30 years. I was a little ashamed, and this article is to atone for my ignorance. Perhaps you, like me, haven’t been privy to this New York gem either.

I first noticed the Scandia Symphony through an ad for their performance at Fort Tyron Park in Inwood. The location of the concert was enticing: a bucolic setting a stone’s throw from the famous Cloisters, high above the inspirational Hudson River. I later discovered that they have been providing this free concert to the community for about 15 years. Where had I been?

The New York Scandia Symphony was founded in 1988 by Dorrit Matson, who serves as their music director and conductor. Matson hails from Denmark and has an extensive background in musicology. She is also a Fulbright scholar, who studied and trained in Denmark, Florida, Germany, and Colorado, among other places. 

According to the Scandia Symphony website, “Ms. Matson has held conducting posts with the Royal Danish Academy of Music Orchestra; the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra; the University of Miami Orchestra; [and] World Stage concerts in New York,” among others.

The website shares the orchestra’s important mission: “With a sincere commitment to the music of Classical, Romantic and Contemporary Scandinavian composers, the Scandia Symphony introduces previously unknown and seldom performed compositions to American audiences…. The orchestra revives and preserves the works of significant classical composers, which might not otherwise have been brought to the attention and availability of the public or become an integrated part of cultural life in New York City.”

I wondered what made Matson decide to create a symphony that plays solely Scandinavian music, a daunting task in and of itself. She explained: “I was in New York for a week, suitcase in hand. I fell in love with the city. I stayed with a family friend in Pelham Bay. I took whatever jobs I could. I realized that the musicians and audience loved the Scandinavian repertoire, and I was a trained conductor. I wanted to share that music.”

And Matson has succeeded in doing so for over three decades, no small feat for a niche not-for-profit in New York. The symphony is successful enough to be comprised of 46 union musicians. Additionally, two other performing groups have been spun off from the original symphony: the Scandia String Quartet in 2005 and the Scandia Brass Quintet in 2007. They have performed at some of New York’s most stellar concert halls, including Symphony Space, the Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House, and the historic Trinity Church at the tip of Manhattan. But importantly, they also bring music to the masses, even giving free concerts, as previously mentioned.

Dorrit Matson

Photo courtesy of New York Scandia Symphony
Maestro Dorrit Matson in action with the New York Scandia Symphony

 It hasn’t, however, always been easy. Government funding for the arts in Scandinavia is much more generous than in the United States. I wondered if this had been one of the hardest obstacles Matson’s organization has faced, and I asked her how she has been able to meet this challenge so successfully. Matson elaborated: “Fundraising is the worst obstacle, especially since there is none or very little support from Scandinavians, corporate or individual. So this is somewhat of a complicated issue and a large question to tackle: I still do not know of a solution at this time. We have had some good results with government funding, [including] the City of New York, so I guess there is some degree of success. This is the result of many years’ long and time consuming funding applications, reports, and communications—no luck involved, just persistent work and a quality project to show.”

So many ethnic orchestras have folded. I wondered how Scandia Symphony has managed to survive. Matson pondered: “We were in residence for 17 years at the historic Trinity Church on Wall Street, so we did not have to worry about rent for that time. Also, the orchestra was able to develop its own sound. Many other ethnic orchestras disappeared. I think the free rent for so many years and the ability to develop our own sound is why Scandia survived.”

Unfortunately, the venue was no longer available after 9/11, as Trinity Church became a focal point for those working and grieving at Ground Zero. But this has not stopped Scandia Symphony. Although they face funding challenges, the symphony continues to provide new and special programming, such as their momentous concerts “The Danish Golden Age: the 200th Anniversary Concert for Niels W. Gade” and the “Nielsen & Sibelius 150th Anniversary Concert.”

The orchestra even includes educational programs for children. One program they ran that caught my eye was “Papa is Always Right,” based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. The story was told with puppets and stuffed animals, accompanied by the symphony. After the performance, children learned about the instruments and were even able to try some of them.

This past summer, the symphony created “Fit as a Troll,” with the aim “to teach children about healthy eating habits and exercise.” The humorous script, by Scandia Symphony’s Frank Foerster was inspired by Michele Obama’s “Let’s Move” program. According to the New York City Parks website, “It involves a junk food loving troll from Norway, his pet dinosaur, Bronto, and a fairy godmother carrying a magic picnic basket with healthy fruits and vegetables and introducing some cool moves to stay fit and in shape.”

I asked Maestro Matson what makes the Scandia Symphony unique. She explained: “In the beginning people discouraged me, saying you can’t only do Scandinavian music, but there is so much repertoire that is not played here and barely played at home. When we presented the Nielsen concert, people were shocked—in a good way. There is so much Scandinavian repertoire, that it could fill many more concert programs. We provide that opportunity and share it with an American audience.”

The conductor also shared with me some of her fondest memories with the orchestra: “There are many memorable happenings but the fondest moments are the performances and CD recordings and just working with as many really talented musicians—all among the finest in New York City.”

Finally, Matson shared the orchestra’s plans for the future: “About future plans, Scandia’s three concert series are pretty much set to happen every year. If additional funding could be found, the future plan would be to expand the large symphonic concert series in Symphony Space to also include a fall presentation.”

New Yorkers can find the Scandia Symphony’s list of upcoming concerts at www.nyscandia.org. For those not fortunate to live near enough to hear them live, you can listen to several excerpts of their musical performances on their website, where CDs are also available for purchase.

Scandia Symphony

Photo courtesy of New York Scandia Symphony
The not-for-profit symphony is comprised of 46 union musicians.

Visit the official website of the New York Scandia Symphony at www.nyscandia.org.

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.

This article originally appeared in the October 4, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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