Making Music. Making a Connection.

Symphony - Michael Gesme wide3

Michael Gesme specializes in making connections through music. Now in his 18th year on faculty at Central Oregon Community College (COCC) and conductor of the C.O. Symphony, Gesme builds bridges with his students, musicians in the orchestra, the C.O. Symphony Association and the Central Oregon community.

The Symphony was formed by college and community visionaries in 1967. Since that time, the Symphony has become a leader in the local music world and beyond. In 2012-2013, more than 8,000 people enjoyed the spring, fall and winter concerts in Bend.

Many will acknowledge Gesme, who's conducted the symphony since 1996, for the symphony's growth. While Gesme is appreciative of the accolades, he prefers to give recognition to those at COCC who had the initial forethought to form a community symphony.

Music provides an opportunity for the community not only for the musicians who play, but for the audience who hears it [the music], says Gesme. COCC and the Symphony is a partnership. One couldn't survive without the other.

Gesme, who plays the piano, trumpet and sings, knew music would be his life's ambition. At the early age of 10 Gesme wanted to conduct choral music. At Luther College in Iowa where Gesme earned his undergraduate degree and was a student at the time, a professor introduced him to orchestral conducting. During his freshman year, Gesme recruited and founded his own ensemble, which would become the Luther College Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra, where only the best of the best musicians perform, lives on more than two decades later.

With a Master's of Music in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Gesme accepted the position as music professor at COCC, where he teaches music history, music theory and ear training. His main role was, and still is, to conduct the all-volunteer, 65-member symphony, which is offered as part of the COCC curriculum.

As conductor for nearly 20 years for the C.O. Symphony, Gesme's objective remains the same: to link the orchestra, music and the audience, making sure there's no wall separating them.

Just because you like one type of music, it doesn't mean you cant embrace another. You don't have to discard the Beatles to enjoy Brahms and vice versa, says Gesme. The music inspires the audience and the audience inspires us [musicians] to do more.

Gesme, working closely with the C.O. Symphony Association (COSA) as their music director, determines which musical pieces to play at each of their concerts. He is particularly mindful to highlight the musical skills of the ever-evolving symphony musicians. In addition to selecting pieces that are accessible to most audiences, Gesme strives never to repeat the same work. Gesme also chooses the guest artist, writes the easily understood program notes and explains the composition to the audience before each piece is performed.

Michael has done a great job allowing the symphony musicians to give [Central Oregon] a powerful musical experience, says Cassie Waling, executive director for COSA and lifelong musician. Fairly rarely do you find a conductor who is so invested in giving a sense of community to the musicians and audience.

Gesme credits Bob Armer, former executive director at COSA for cultivating an excellent donor base, allowing COSA to offer free admission. Attendance to the concerts exploded from about 150 per performance to more than 600, often times reaching capacity of 1,400 at Bend High auditorium.

Though Gesme wouldn't admit to it, his charisma, flair for music and obvious enthusiasm is the reason the symphony has seen such an upsurge in attendance. Gesme truly is a world-class conductor who could be leading an orchestra in any of our country's top cities.

I think the symphony is respected in the community largely due to Michael's efforts to offer quality music that is accessible to everyone, says Terri Grimm, small business owner and violinist in the Symphony since 1998.

Thanks to a generous bequest from the Paul and Fran Wille (pronounce Willy) estate, the symphony, which used to practice at crowded Pinckney Center, now has a dedicated space to rehearse the complex music. Open since 2009 as part of COCC's Coats Campus Center, Wille Hall, which is acoustically sound, is also home for rehearsals for vocal and chamber music, and is used for various events including lectures and performances.

Even if you don't call yourself a symphony person attend one of the spring concerts May 17, 18 or 19. Guaranteed you will be back for future concerts. Check out for details.