Orchestra Back At SMPAC: Jubilant return for HSO
Updated: Feb 11
• Hartford Symphony Orchestra Returns To Simsbury Meadows
By Bruce Deckert
Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra is returning jubilantly to the Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center (aka SMPAC) this summer after a pandemic-induced hiatus.
Last year was supposed to be the 25th anniversary season of the HSO’s popular Talcott Mountain Music Festival in Simsbury — but the COVID shutdown delayed the celebration. This July, the 25th season will be observed via a series of five lively concerts.
“Feedback from the general public has been clear,” says SMPAC executive director Melissa “Missy” DiNunno. “Folks are ready to get back out to Simsbury Meadows to enjoy concerts, and we couldn’t be happier to return to a world of large-scale events with the help of our friends and partners at the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.”
The HSO’s 2021 festival will begin on Friday, July 2 with the classic Celebrate America Fourth of July program, with the other four concerts scheduled for the subsequent Fridays in July. Single concerts are slated to go on sale June 14. Five-concert table packages are sold out, but you can be placed on a waiting list — simply email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 860-244-2999. For further info, call the HSO box office at 860-987-5900.
Each festival concert starts at 7:30 p.m. The gates open at 6:00 p.m. for picnicking and enjoying the scenic SMPAC grounds. When patrons are away from their seats, masks will be required as an extra precaution.
Since last spring, when the COVID shutdown took effect, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra has produced numerous hours of online programming. This summer, music enthusiasts can hear the legendary ensemble in person again.
“This has been such a long time coming, particularly for all of us in the arts and entertainment industry,” says DiNunno. “More than a stage, Simsbury Meadows has become a place the community has counted on to allow for gathering and making memories together, and we are so grateful for the opportunity to do so once again this summer.”
The Talcott Mountain Music Festival launched in 1995 as the HSO’s summer home, debuting at an open field on the Simsbury grounds of The Hartford insurance company. From 1995-2001, that field was converted to a concert venue each summer for the festival.
In 2002, the town of Simsbury purchased the Baker Farm, a historic property of more than 400 picturesque acres between the Farmington River and the town’s center, and a temporary bandshell became the HSO’s summer performance venue.
In 2004, area residents caught a vision for a permanent summertime residence for the HSO.
Together with the town of Simsbury, they set in motion the construction of a long-term home for the festival at the Baker Farm site — and in 2005 the state-of-the-art Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center opened. An open-air facility, SMPAC is located on Iron Horse Boulevard, a stone’s throw from Hopmeadow Street (Route 10) in the heart of downtown Simsbury.
“It is hard to believe that a tent in the corner field would blossom into 20 years,” then-Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman told the Hartford Courant in 2015 upon the 20th anniversary of the Talcott Mountain Music Festival.
Here is the festival’s 2021 schedule:
• Celebrate America — Friday, July 2
• Queens of Soul — Friday, July 9
• Classical Mystery Tour: A Tribute to the Beatles — Friday, July 16
• Disco Inferno — Friday, July 23
• Super Diamond and HSO: Music of Neil Diamond — Friday, July 30
All concerts start at 7:30 p.m.
SMPAC offers much more in addition to the HSO and its signature summer festival.
The concert headliner this year is Darius Rucker, the Grammy-winning solo performer and longtime frontman of Grammy-winning band Hootie & the Blowfish. Originally planned for last summer, Rucker’s concert is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 28.
Until last year, the SMPAC schedule focused mainly on concerts — from the HSO to the Beach Boys to Earth, Wind & Fire to Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons to Harry Connick Jr. to Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Temptations … to name a few. When COVID canceled the 2020 concert schedule, SMPAC pivoted to salvage the 2020 season and keep the nonprofit financially viable.
“The pivot strategy was to offer activities and events that could be managed safely, observing social-distancing rules and the governor’s capacity guidelines,” says Linda Schofield, SMPAC’s board president since 2019.
This strategy essentially took lemons and made lemonade. Thanks to DiNunno’s hard work and creativity, SMPAC’s outdoor facility was actually busier during the 2020 pandemic year than in previous years. The venue hosted 39 events in 2019, but in 2020 more than 70 events took place after the June reopening — the list included cardio dance and cardio barre classes, dance recitals, yoga classes, movie nights and special events.
“Community businesses and organizations responded, and there were activities at SMPAC every day of the week,” says Schofield, a Simsbury resident who has served as the town’s state representative.
The new focus on beyond-concert events and programs resulted in a new SMPAC slogan: “More than a stage.”
A reprise of this eclectic calendar is occurring in 2021. Brand-new events include the Simsbury Meadows Comedy Series on three Wednesdays in July and a Connecticut Concert Series on three Wednes-days in August, featuring top talent from the state’s music scene.
“Our patrons have been asking for more events at the venue,” says DiNunno, “and we are so excited to be answering that call in the quest to diversify and expand our offerings.”
Meanwhile, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its 77th anniversary later this year. The HSO is the second-largest orchestra in New England and typically presents more than 100 concerts annually.
The orchestra debuted in November 1934 as the Hartford FERA Concert Orchestra, according to the HSO website — in the midst of the Great Depression, with funding from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). After FERA was disbanded in 1935, the ensemble became the Hartford Civic Symphony Orchestra, and in 1936 the name officially changed to the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.
This year, the name of the game is clear — the longed-for return of the iconic Talcott Mountain Music Festival. +
• This article first appeared as the cover story in the June edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
• Today Magazine covers the heart of Connecticut's Farmington Valley, recording the underreported upside of the Valley's five core towns — Farmington, Avon, Canton, Simsbury and Granby