The year 2020 is a big one for Neal Gittleman.

It marks his 25th anniversary as artistic director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra as well as his 35th wedding anniversary.

“A conductor’s relationship with the orchestra is a little like a marriage,” Gittleman says. “Communication is very important. Making an effort to listen. Being present. Working to keep things fresh and interesting. But in the orchestra I have 83 partners,” he grins.

His life partner is Lisa Fry, a donor relations officer with the local nonprofit Daybreak. “We met in Portland, Oregon, where I was an assistant director of the symphony. She worked in the development office there. Her desk had the only computer on it. My floppy disk fit it. We met when I asked if I could use it after hours.

“Our first date was to the movie Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan. I think I said something like, ‘If you can make it to the movie I’ll give you a ride home.’ Going to see a movie is still one of our favorite things to do.” Neal and Lisa frequently catch films at the Neon Movies downtown.

Another activity the couple likes to do is walk. “We love the (Five Rivers) MetroPark(s) system,” Lisa says. “We walk them all year round. It’s always different, never the same experience twice.”

“We’re a one-car family,” says Neal. “We chose where we live to be within walking distance of the bus. The Flyer runs right down Brown Street. That makes it very convenient for us to get between home and office.”

“People often tell us they’ve seen us walking,” Lisa says. “It’s just something we do naturally.”

One of Neal’s favorite pastimes also involves walking. “Dayton has some really nice golf courses. I admit I’m pretty serious about my game. That competition with myself is fun and relaxing.”

So what has kept him at the Dayton Philharmonic so long? “One of my mentors believed that you should leave a post as conductor when your role is at its height, maybe 10 to 15 years in,” Gittleman says. “I feel Dayton is a hub for artistic innovation, much as it has been for engineering and invention. The community is open to experimentation and new ideas. It is inspiring to be here.

“Over the years things have evolved,” he says. “We have pushed ourselves to make strategic changes to keep current with our audience. Splitting the POPs with the Rockin’ Orchestra concerts is an example.”

When the Philharmonic joined resources with the ballet and the opera in the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance it presented a new set of opportunities. “We were the first in the country to do this. In Europe many municipalities own the arts organizations and operate them as one. It has worked for us in some ways and been a challenge in others.

“It means more chances for live music to accompany the ballet and the opera, which leads to more paying jobs for musicians who are putting together part time work to make a living,” Neal says. “Classical concerts require more rehearsals and are therefore more expensive to present. Adding dance and vocal elements effectively is a balance of disciplines.”

Music education and children’s concerts are important to Neal. “I was lucky enough, growing up in Brooklyn, to see Leonard Bernstein conduct children’s concerts. This had an impact on my beliefs that music appreciation is taught early and educational experiences are a key to future audiences.”

Gittleman’s playful side comes out in these kinds of concerts. The Philharmonster each Halloween season is a favorite.

“Conducting for live musical scores to films and the Rockin’ concerts takes fewer rehearsals and is therefore less expensive to present” Gittleman says. “Dayton’s arts groups were founded by the industry giants of the past (including the Deeds, Ketterings and Orville and Katharine Wright).

“We still count on our business leadership to help us secure the future of our organization.”