Back in 1990, four people hatched a plan over breakfast.
Sitting at the Autoport restaurant, Douglas Meyer; his wife, Pat Thornton; and their musician friends, Daryl and Lois Durran, decided that State College needed a professional chamber orchestra.
Meyer, a French horn player, struck a positive note.
“I said to Daryl, ‘If you hire the musicians, I’ll be the conductor,’ ” he recalled.
Their idea took shape the next year. More than 300 performed pieces later, Meyer will direct his last concerto with the Durrans and the rest of the Pennsylvania Centre Orchestra.
The orchestra recently announced that Meyer, now 71, will retire as the PCO conductor this spring after a May 7 concert concludes the 2013-14 season.
His decision closes an era but opens doors. Both Meyer and the orchestra he nurtured for two decades stand on the verge of exciting possibilities.
Meyer looks forward to guest conducting and composing more music. Meanwhile, the PCO prepares for new directions.
Each of the top three candidates to succeed Meyer will organize and conduct a concert during the 2014-15 season — a trio of auditions, in a sense. Musicians and audiences will have chances to evaluate the maestros.
“What better way to find out how good they are than let them do the job?” said Skip Webster, a local advertising agency owner and PCO board member on the search committee.
If all goes according to plan, the orchestra will announce its new conductor by the end of the season on June 1, 2015.
Whoever replaces Meyer isn’t likely to match his longevity.
“It’s sort of unusual, really, in these days,” he said.
“Now conductors stay maybe 10, 12 years. I just felt it was time to let the orchestra find a new plateau. I look at it as 22 years of step one for it. We need some fresh ideas.”
Traditionally, chamber orchestras have smaller sections than their symphonic cousins, and different proportions of instruments — one oboe to six first violins, for instance, rather than one to 20.
PCO usually performs with about 32 musicians and little brass and percussion, said Executive Director Susan Kroeker, a charter member who plays the flute.
“It’s more of an intimate orchestra,” she said. “You won’t hear loud, blasting, epic kinds of pieces, but more delicate music.”
The new conductor could introduce different chamber music styles than Meyer favored — which Kroeker, as a musician, finds intriguing. She’s also enthusiastic about the national search started a week ago for Meyer’s successor, a process the orchestra has been told could draw more than 100 applicants before the March 3 cutoff.
“I think it can take us to a new level, but we’ll miss Doug very much,” Kroeker said. “He’s really been the lifeblood of the orchestra. He’s poured his energy into it.”
Away from the stage, Meyer led the orchestra as well, courting donors and sponsors, organizing mailings, buying advertising, updating the Web page and even printing programs. He started an endowment by reducing his own salary, Kroeker said.
Under his stewardship, the orchestra grew its annual budget from $3,000 to about $100,000, performed world premieres and invited many elite guest soloists such as pianist Seymour Lipkin from the Juilliard School.
Today, the PCO, the only all-paid orchestra in town and one of the few of its kind in the state, plays three to four regular season concerts at Penn State’s Esber Recital Hall.
In addition, the PCO performs Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas, its Bach in the Round concert at a local church and an annual March fundraiser lunch, “An Evening in Old Vienna” with music of the Strauss family, at The Tavern restaurant.
His legacies also include a tradition of visiting elementary schools across the county with small ensembles. Each musician plays a solo and demonstrates his or her instrument. Then comes a performance, with students invited to conduct.
Meyer estimates the series annually gives about 2,000 children a taste of classical music. This spring, he’s planning to read the story of Ferdinand the Bull while the ensemble plays the score from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”
“He just basically lived for the orchestra this last 22 years,” Kroeker said. “It was basically his baby.”
Webster said the search committee, which comprises board members, musicians and patrons, seeks someone as passionate to build on previous successes but also expand the orchestra’s fundraising and community presence. Finding the PCO a venue of its own, Webster suggested, might be a long-term goal.
“We hope to find a young, dynamic, charismatic maestro who is so excited that he gets everybody excited,” he said.
Meyer hopes so, too.
“I think it’s important,” he said. “(The orchestra) has sort of become my style, and there are plenty of excellent conductors who will have excellent ideas.”
Meyer’s no slouch himself. Praised by the Mannheim, Germany, newspaper Die Rheinpfalz as a “truly magnificent conductor,” he plans on conducting an April performance of the opera “Tosca” in the Ukraine, if the current political unrest doesn’t derail his visit.
After that, he’s not sure what the future will bring.
“I’ll sort of refresh some friendships and see what I can turn up,” he said.
His next chapter will continue an extensive journey begun in tiny Ridgeville Corners, Ohio, when his high school music teacher let him conduct.
Over the course of his distinguished career, he has directed symphonies in Cincinnati; Yuma, Ariz.; Rochester, Minn.; Philadelphia and other cities. Cincinnati’s mayor honored him with a “Douglas Meyer Day.” His baton has taken him across the country, and to concerts in Mexico, the Czech Republic, France, Austria, Hungary and Germany.
But wherever he conducts, he’ll always have a soft spot for an orchestra that brought big city classical music to a central Pennsylvania college town.
“It’s a wonderful orchestra, and it’s going to blossom even more, I hope,” he said.
He’ll still get to enjoy it — just from a different perspective.
“I don’t intend to get too far away from them,” he said. “I will remain their biggest fan.”