LaVon Pierson remembers sitting in the bleachers at Bellevue High School to hear the inaugural concert of the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra...

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LaVon Pierson remembers sitting in the bleachers at Bellevue High School to hear the inaugural concert of the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra. It was Dec. 10, 1967. Tarps had been spread to protect the gymnasium floor and the audience of about 400 people wore their Sunday best. The musicians, dressed in black, opened with the national anthem.

This weekend Pierson will be there again — as she has almost every season for four decades — as the Bellevue Philharmonic launches its 40th-anniversary season at The Theatre at Meydenbauer.

A lot has changed beyond the venue.

“It sounds better than ever,” said Pierson, an Issaquah resident. “They’re tackling more difficult things. I enjoy it more than ever.”

Pierson, like many other Eastside fans, has watched the orchestra develop from a small-town community musical group to a paid professional orchestra, following it from gymnasium to church to Bellevue’s classiest venue. Longtime supporters say the BPO, founded on a dream and a newspaper ad, has never sounded better, thanks to the popular and dynamic musical director and conductor, Fusao Kajima.

“The growth in quality since he arrived has been phenomenal,” said Mary Pat Bryne, the city art specialist for Bellevue. “I think right now we’re seeing and hearing new heights in the Philharmonic’s artistic quality.”

While the young conductor has raised the level of music and musicians since his arrival in 1998, it wasn’t until executive director Larry Fried was hired in 2003 that ticket sales zoomed.

“When I started, we had $4,000 in the bank. My second day on the job I had to go to the orchestra and say their paychecks would be late,” Fried said.

A large donation arrived four days later and paychecks were issued on schedule. Fried never had to face the musicians with news like that again. Instead, he reports record subscription sales. He rebranded the concert series and offered half-price subscriptions to new concertgoers. Sales doubled and subscriptions have remained high ever since — topping 550 this season.

Fried also oversaw redesign of the BPO’s Web site. Visitors can now click on the music notes scattered on the site and hear music. More importantly, he said, a visitor can buy a concert ticket in two clicks of the mouse.

“Anything else is icing on the cake,” Fried said.

The orchestra’s growing success makes founder R. Joseph Scott smile with pride.

Scott, who served as an assistant conductor when he played oboe with a small Seattle orchestra, enjoyed conducting so much he decided to start his own orchestra. He placed an ad in the Bellevue community newspaper, inviting musicians to a rehearsal Sept. 14, 1967.

A couple of dozen came. They recruited others who in turn invited more friends to join the weekly rehearsals.

Sixty-five musicians performed at the first concert. Tickets were $1.50.

No one was paid. Scott worked full time as a florist and devoted his spare hours to the BPO. He went door-to-door in his Enatai neighborhood, recruiting volunteers.

In 1984, QFC grocery-store founder Jack Croco launched the Conductor’s Club, an insider’s group that paid the conductor’s salary. He nudged the board into hiring Scott as the full-time director.

“It took a long time for the Philharmonic to establish itself and become a household name,” Scott said. “But we had a very dedicated group of people with a goal in mind. That’s what made it work.”

Hazel and John Matheson, of Bellevue, joined the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra League, a support group, in 1975. When the orchestra performed at Bellevue Community College, John set up chairs for overflow crowds. Hazel and other league women sold punch and cookies during intermission.

Like other league members, they also were generous with their checkbook.

“It is important to the community to have an orchestra,” John Matheson said. “We have to balance what we do in life — education, business, athletics — and music is part of that balance.”

Scott left the BPO in 1997. In the last nine years he has transformed a small musical group that met at Issaquah’s Providence Point into the 75-member Sammamish Orchestra.

The BPO board conducted a national search for a new musical director. From 155 applicants, they settled on the Japanese-born Kajima, who earned degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music and the University of Michigan. A former music director of Fox Valley Symphony in Illinois and the Georgia State University Orchestra, Kajima had conducted internationally and still serves as a guest conductor in Europe.

One of his favorite pieces will be featured at this weekend’s concert: Symphony No. 9 in D major by Dvorak.

“I first heard that when I was 3-½ and my mother took me to a Japanese Philharmonic family concert,” Kajima said.

“It changed my life. My parents bought me a recording of it and I played it five and six times a day. I knew I wanted to be a conductor.”

His personal quest is to expand the audience. Through Sound Adventures, an outreach effort involving seven Eastside school districts, musicians visit elementary schools with an interactive lecture/demonstration program. The BPO provides curriculum materials for teachers, and students are invited to six Young People’s Concerts.

Since its inception in 1998, more than 41,000 students in grades three to five have participated in the free program. “For many students, this is their first opportunity to experience live orchestral music,” Fried said. “No other musical organization on the Eastside provides this type of program.”

Kajima would like to expand the outreach even more, offering family concerts in outlying communities.

The orchestra has made other big changes in the last decade. Before 1998, only a few musicians received a stipend. All are now paid. Kajima made major personnel shifts, building a higher-quality professional corps of musicians.

In 2002 the orchestra moved to Meydenbauer Center after a number of years at Westminster Chapel in Bellevue.

The BPO remains dependent upon fundraisers, sponsors and the generosity of supporters. Less than 20 percent of the current $659,000 operating budget comes from ticket sales. That, too, is expected to change when the Philharmonic moves into the larger, 2,000-seat PACE — Performing Arts Center Eastside — when it opens in 2010.

“Acoustically, the Philharmonic is a good orchestra now,” said John Haynes, the center’s executive director. “They’ll sound better when they get into a good acoustical environment.”

If the past is any indication, Pierson will probably be there opening night.

“It has been fun to watch the orchestra grow and to know there’s music in the community,” she said. “It’s been a part of my life ever since that first concert.”

Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or sgrindeland@seattletimes.com