VINELAND, N.J. - You could call the Bay-Atlantic Symphony the unlikeliest of orchestras.
Operating in deep South Jersey - amid some of most economically depressed and rural parts of the state - the symphony has served a range of audiences for three decades, even though it has no performance home base.
The orchestra offers an ambitious calendar of 12 symphonic programs annually, performed by a cadre of musicians hired from throughout the Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore regions on a "per service" basis.
On any given date, the full 60-piece orchestra could be playing for a highbrow academic crowd at an area college or a packed audience of high rollers in an Atlantic City casino.
Or a smaller ensemble may pop up some afternoon at an Atlantic City Expressway rest stop to play for road-worn truckers and beach-weary families.
This weekend, the orchestra has been performing its "Holiday Cheer" concert at Stockton College in Galloway and Cumberland County College in Vineland. On Jan. 24 and 25, it will perform Vivaldi, Gjeilo, and Lauridsen at both colleges.
"We go wherever we are hired or invited to go," said Paul Herron, executive director of the Bridgeton-based organization, which describes itself as serving a population between the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
With international award-winning musical director Jed Gaylin at the helm since 1997, Bay-Atlantic has evolved into a musical force in the region, forging residencies at colleges, towns, festivals, and at the Borgata in Atlantic City.
"So many different types of people live here, with all different types of needs, but it's all beautiful music that we bring to them," Herron said.
He notes that the symphony's consistent offerings since 1981 have been no small feat, as government grants and subsidies for the arts have shrunk over the decades.
Operating on an annual budget of about $480,000 - compared with the Philadelphia Orchestra's $38 million - South Jersey's little nonprofit symphony has learned to balance its meager books.
With only about $36,000 of its annual funding provided by government grants, the rest is raised from contracted gigs throughout the region, including at the Borgata and various events. The group takes in about $110,000 a year from foundations and corporate sponsors such as the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Shore Medical Center, the Kligerman Foundation, Woodruff Energy, and South Jersey Industries.
"It's an organization that has really become a model for what a 21st-century arts organization needs to be to survive," said Cathleen Kiernan, a spokeswoman for the symphony, who has worked with a variety of arts groups in the region. "It's learned to evolve in a way that reaches into the communities it serves and partners with foundations and corporations to make that happen."
On a recent Saturday night, a seven-member chamber ensemble celebrated New Jersey's 350th anniversary with a free performance at the Landis Theater in Vineland. On the particularly windy and rainy evening, about a hundred people gathered for a spirited two-hour program inside the art-deco former movie palace to hear pieces that paid homage to the Garden State's culture and history.
Two pieces - the modern "Birding in the Palisades" by Amanda Harberg, of Glen Ridge, evocative of the eagles, kingfishers, and crows that grace the skies, and "The Battle of Trenton," a 1797 composition by James Hewitt that recalled the crucial Revolutionary War battle - seemed to particularly resonate with the audience.
As did "On Avalon Beach," a recollection of childhood memories by contemporary composer Stefan Young. A faculty member at the Westminster Choir College of Rider University, Young performed the improvisational piece on piano, using his arms and elbows, as well as his fingers.
The symphony may reach its community most directly through a program called Music Mentorship, Herron said. It takes symphony musicians and Stockton music students to the classrooms at Atlantic City High School to teach string instruments.
"When we looked at the musical programming in that school system, we saw a great need to bring music and the arts to these students," Herron said. "What a program like this does is help turn these kids into the musicians and audiences of the future."
Gaylin, who in 2012 was named the artist-in-residence at Stockton and has allowed for the Bay-Atlantic Symphony to be integrated in the college's curriculum through rehearsals and presentations that have become focal points for coursework and seminars, contends that such efforts further promote the entity as an integral part of the region.
"It's really fascinating for us as musicians to have the opportunity to make music in all these different and various ways and reach so many different types of audiences," said Gaylin, who, along with Bay-Atlantic, has collaborated with such renowned soloists as Hilary Hahn, Stefan Jackiw, and Chee-Yun.