The Sweet Sound of Community
When members of the Nittany Valley Symphony perform together, they intertwine their diverse backgrounds and levels of experience to create perfect harmony.
“This is a volunteer community orchestra,” says Roberta Strebel, Executive Director of the Nittany Valley Symphony. “We have our professional musicians who sit in principal positions and lead their sections, but the rest of the orchestra consists of volunteers.”
One of these volunteers is Ellie Lewis, current board chair and violinist who has been performing with the Nittany Valley Symphony for nearly three decades. In 1991, she and her late husband, Jack, moved temporarily to State College, to be closer to their son who was attending Penn State.
“I have a home with the symphony,” says Ellie. “My closest friends are in the symphony or involved in some way. It’s a big extended family.”
In fact, the string section is so close-knit that many of them gather for lunch each month to celebrate anyone who had a birthday.
“I think there’s one month when there isn’t a birthday, but they still get together to celebrate,” says Roberta. “Instead of exchanging gifts, they give each other cards and pass around an envelope to raise money for the symphony. They raise almost $1,000 a year, just by having birthdays!”
Ellie says, “The cards are quite interesting. Usually, they are humorous, but when a new person joins the group, the cards are very serious until that person catches on.”
Welcoming new people into the group, especially younger musicians, is a passion of the Nittany Valley Symphony.
Prior to each of their five concerts, the symphony welcomes various youth music groups to form their own ensembles and perform while listeners find their seats.
“We’ve had many wonderful musicians,” says Roberta. “The opportunity to play in front of an audience really gives them a boost.”
During their February concert, the symphony invites a high school musician to perform a movement of a concerto with the orchestra. This musician is selected among contestants in the Ann Keller Young Soloist Competition, which honors the woman who founded the Nittany Valley Symphony and perpetuates the love of classical music for generations to come.
In 2005, the Nittany Valley Symphony created an endowment fund, the Nittany Valley Symphony Endowment Fund, which provides ongoing support for their world-class productions and programming.
Additionally, the Nittany Valley Symphony is always a favorite during Centre Gives, raising $31,056 in 2018 and $31,004 in 2019.
Several members, including Ellie, have also chosen to support the Nittany Valley Symphony by establishing endowment funds.
As a way to honor Jack’s legacy and his lifelong interest in classical music, Ellie established the Jack Lewis Memorial Tuba Chair Fund at Centre Foundation in 2015.
“While in high school, Jack was always fond of the tuba and played in an award-winning brass quartet,” says Ellie. “So this fund supports the principal tuba chair of the Nittany Valley Symphony in his memory.”
In 2018, Ellie also established the Elinor C. Lewis Second Violin Chair Fund, which supports the principal chair of the second violin section, of which she is a member.
Since its founding in 1967, the Nittany Valley Symphony has often become a second family for its musicians.
Roberta says, “One of our professional musicians said to me once, ‘When you play in certain orchestras, you play for them; when you play in the Nittany Valley Symphony, you play with them’”
Ellie agrees, “After Jack died, people thought that I would go back to New Jersey where I lived all my life. I have a life here now, and I don’t want to leave it.”