It wasn't surprising that Robert Bell chose to celebrate 50 years of service to the Toledo Symphony and artistic community with music and a little help from his friends.
Joined by orchestra members and former students, the symphony president and CEO gave an informal percussion recital Tuesday afternoon in Symphony Space, the smartly designed rehearsal room in the orchestra's administrative office building on Parkwood Avenue. Mr. Bell's repertoire included his favorite pieces from the past 50 years.
"I arranged the recital as a commemoration of times well spent. I wanted to use the occasion as an opportunity to reflect back on things about the orchestra and the people that made such a tremendous difference in my life. It was an opportunity to express my feelings," Mr. Bell said.
The recital date was chosen with care. On Oct. 31, 1956, Mr. Bell made his debut with the Toledo Symphony in a concert across Monroe Street in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. There, conductor Joseph Hawthorne led the orchestra in a program of music by Samuel Barber, Alexander Glazunov, and Cesar Franck.
Mr. Bell, then a 17-year-old senior at Woodward High School, was the youngest, newest, and least experienced member of the orchestra. Even so, he carried a formidable-sounding title: timpanist and principal percussionist.
Those were different times for the Toledo Symphony.
The orchestra was a semi-professional affair. Some musicians drove up from Bowling Green State University, others drove down from Ann Arbor and Detroit. The rest of the chairs were filled with local teachers and amateurs.
The entire Toledo Symphony season consisted of fewer than 20 performances. The orchestra's $40,000 budget covered all expenses, from rent and heat to salaries for guest soloists.
Today, the orchestra is fully professional, with a budget of $5.9 million, and an endowment of $14 million. Under the musical direction of Stefan Sanderling, the Toledo Symphony arguably has become one of the nation's finest regional orchestras.
Certainly it is one of the busiest. Counting chamber ensemble engagements, the orchestra performs well over 500 concerts annually to an audience of more than 400,000 people. With an earned income of 50 percent of total budget, the Toledo Symphony is one of the country's most financially efficient orchestras.
Don't credit Mr. Bell for all those accomplishments, but don't count him out either. In addition to his ongoing duties as a performer, Mr. Bell has served as personnel manager, managing director, and, since 1997, president and CEO.
"Bob is an effective leader, the principal person responsible for building the internal culture of this orchestra," said DeBow Freed, president of the University of Findlay and a longtime Toledo Symphony board member.
Mr. Bell's accomplishments are many. He was instrumental in the hiring of Mr. Sanderling, a move that has rejuvenated the orchestra's artistic life. Equally important has been Mr. Bell's initiative to create a system of shared governance between administration and musicians. That move was a key piece in the orchestra's receiving a nine-year, $2.3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Mr. Bell has guided the organization through financially difficult times. In the seasons following the attacks on the World Trade Center, attendance and charitable donations fell precipitously. Ink turned from black to red as the orchestra quickly went from a balanced budget to a deficit totaling more than $500,000.
Three factors saved the Toledo Symphony from insolvency. First was a hefty withdrawal from the orchestra's endowment fund. Second was a contract negotiation during which musicians and administrators looked at the books together and made mutual financial sacrifices. Third was Mr. Bell's ability to convince area business leaders that the Toledo Symphony would remain a worthwhile investment.
Mr. Bell "defines the word 'care.' I wouldn't be here if not for his deep involvement," said Richard P. Anderson, chairman of The Andersons and former Toledo Symphony board chairman.
Today, the orchestra is on track and in the black. Concert attendance is up, as is corporate and private giving. Recent hires in important positions have strengthened the orchestra's core sound. The artistic product is at an all-time high.
Mr. Bell's public service to the Toledo Symphony makes it easy to overlook another aspect of his life, his behind-the-scenes work as a teacher. He has mentored hundreds of percussion students, often teaching for free. Alumni perform in orchestras around the country. Those ranks include Don Miller, longtime member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and Keith McWatters, of the Toledo Symphony. Both performed on Tuesday.
"Bob has influenced more musicians and music listeners than anyone I know. He taught me everything I ever needed to know about music," said Mr. Miller.
Mr. Bell has long been involved in community service. In the 1980s he developed the Community Music Lessons program. A similar program currently runs in the Lucas County Juvenile Detention Center. His Music in Our Schools program matches resident professional musicians with high school students.
Mr. Bell has sat on the Recommendation Board of the Avery Fisher Artist Program, the Elise L. Stoeger Prize, and the Young Artist Fund of the Toledo Community Foundation. In 1994, he received the Governor's Award for Arts Administration.
Through all of his administrative duties, Mr. Bell has continued to perform. Tuesday's recital offered a varied mix of difficult repertoire, all well played. More important than any technical display, however, was the connection Mr. Bell created with his audience. Each piece was introduced with a remembrance. Often he singled out and thanked audience members who had been important in his life.
"The quality of the individuals who have been involved in the stewardship of the orchestra has given me constant hope. It has been a tremendous honor to be involved in any and every way possible," he said.
Musicians often say that their job is to serve the composer. Well maybe. But on Tuesday afternoon the opposite seemed to be the case. The music served the performer, who, in anecdotes and musical tones, and always by drawing attention to the work of others, told us important things about the nature of a life well lived. No musical event could hope to do more.