McMullan, orchestra founder, recalled as brilliant visionary

When conductor, pianist and horn player Andrew McMullan moved to Vero Beach from Maine 30 years ago, he longed for the orchestras he left behind, including one he founded, the Portland Chamber Orchestra.

So he founded another one, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra. McMullan, who conducted the orchestra until his retirement in 2004, died Jan. 26 at the age of 95.

Within months of moving here, McMullan was already mapping out plans at the dining room table along with wife Jean, a former cellist. Cobbling together 28 musicians, they drove back and forth between the orchestra’s dual homes – Vero and Stuart, toting their Shih Tzu dogs and sometimes sneaking them into concerts.

“Andy McMullan had an inspired vision to start a high-quality orchestra for the Treasure Coast,” said Jean Beckert, president of the Vero Friends of the ACO. “The team of Andy and Jean McMullan worked tirelessly to make that dream come true.”

The McMullans built a chamber orchestra that by 2009, as Palm Beach Post music critic Charles Passy wrote, “could claim an honored place in even the most culturally rich communities.”

The orchestra has drawn national and international musicians, commissioning works by up-and-coming composers and eventually recording under McMullan’s successor, Stewart Robertson, the former conductor of Florida Grand Opera.

Today, under Maestro David Amado, who also serves as music director of the Delaware Symphony, the season includes four concerts in each of three cities – Vero, Stuart and Palm Beach Gardens – by an orchestra of 30 to 45 musicians, often featuring a prominent guest soloist. It also stages smaller chamber performances in Vero and Stuart.

It was in November 1988 that McMullan led the chamber orchestra in its first concert, in the Vero Beach Museum of Art’s Leonhardt auditorium. The all-Mozart program was played by a group that was half professional and half volunteer. It proved an inspirational concert – donations poured in. The group’s first season officially began two months later.

In 1994, McMullan scored a major coup for his fledging orchestra: a performance by 13-year-old violin prodigy Hilary Hahn, who by then had played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra. Hahn, lured in part by a relative in Stuart, would perform four more times, the last time in 2004.

“It was Andy’s hope that our audiences would love to watch Hilary’s artistic development,” said Kathy Kopani, McMullan’s daughter and a violinist with the orchestra for 18 years.

By 1995, the group had enough funds to pay all the musicians. Throughout McMullan’s tenure, the orchestra maintained enough support to stay in the black; only twice did it dip into the red. Even then, it was only a few days before donors stepped up.

Another McMullan coup was performing a work written for the ACO by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Norman Dello Joio.

“Somebody said he was visiting Vero, and Andy was just electrified that he was here,” recalls Jean McMullan. “I don’t know how he ended up at the concert, but he and Andy struck up a huge friendship.”

The final year of McMullan’s tenure as conductor, 2003, coincided with Dello Joio’s 90th birthday. “He conducted one of his pieces at every concert that season,” said Kopani.

Though his life as a professional musician was mostly in Maine and Connecticut, McMullan was a Southerner. Born in Decatur, Miss., a small town near Meridian, he credited his musical ear with keeping a Southern accent at bay. He studied piano as a child, and by high school knew every brass instrument in the band. He went on to study music at Louisiana State University, settling on French horn, a challenging instrument.

But it was his natural leadership and organizational skills that caught the eye of the LSU dean. He asked McMullan to take over the marching band when its director left right before the opening game of football season. When he was called to the dean’s office a second time, he thought, “What have I done now?” he told 32963 in an interview for a 2010 profile. The dean asked him to finish out the season, taking over all three LSU bands and conducting three concerts. His success earned him a full scholarship to graduate school at Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.

McMullan was conducting at Eastman when one of his flutists developed stage fright. McMullan got the idea to ask a grad student who played cello to sit, flute in hand, next to the anxious flutist for emotional support. The night of the concert, the therapy failed and the flutist froze; it was left to the student to fake the solo: “She put the flute up to her mouth, and looked quickly at the key to see what we were playing in, and she blew four notes: toot, toot, toot, toot!”

That was enough. Impressed with the stand-in’s pluck, McMullan went back stage to express his thanks. The stand-in was Jean McMullan; he caught her “just as I was creeping out horrified.” The two married in 1950. “He announced our engagement by having his marching band perform in the pattern of a diamond on the football field,” recalls Jean.

At 23, with his master’s in music, McMullan was hired to teach at the University of Connecticut, again directing the college band. Jean got a job playing cello with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony, but her dream from childhood was to own a summer camp for girls. As would happen repeatedly in their 68-year marriage, one partner helped the other make a dream come true.

Moving to Maine, Jean bought Alford Lake Camp, while Andy bought a small uniform manufacturing business with 12 employees. Over the next 34 years, he built the Hanold Company into a multimillion-dollar business with 150 employees. Jean’s camp similarly expanded, hosting 250 girls every summer.

Jean McMullan recalls the time the town wouldn’t heed her pleas to re-route a road that ran straight through the camp. “I was so afraid one of my girls was going to get hit. Finally Andy said, ‘Let’s just move all the buildings to other side of the road.’ And we did. He was always thinking outside the box.”

In Maine, music continued to be part of their lives, as Jean played cello and Andy played French horn with the Portland Symphony. He founded the Portland Chamber Orchestra, and for eight summers conducted the Maine Opera Association.

This season, Atlantic Classical Orchestra relocated its Vero concerts from St. Edward’s School to Community Church. It was hoped that Andy McMullan would join in the 30th anniversary of the orchestration he founded. Instead, conductor David Amado will speak at his memorial service at the church Feb. 15; violinist Elmar Oliveira, a frequent guest soloist with ACO, will perform.

Then Amado – and a substantial portion of the congregation – will rush down to Stuart for a 4 p.m. matinee. It’s the sort of feat McMullan himself might have enjoyed, assuming the concert goes on without a hitch. “There is story after story after story of the things Andy pulled off with his wits,” says Jean McMullan. “He was amazing.”

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