Story last updated at 4:13 p.m. Thursday, August 15, 2002

Kenai Peninsula Orchestra celebrates 20 years making music

Classic Connection

by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Violinist Shelah Moreno-Jones practices.  
The horn section's post-lunch rehearsal started with a light-hearted discussion about the impacts of caramel cookie crumbs on shining instruments. New life forms have been found in horns during thorough cleanings, brass clinician Howard Hedges tells the group of eight.

Quickly, however, the crumb chat gives way to more serious subjects, as the group struggles to align its entry into "Marche hongroise" by Hector Berlioz.

There's some question about the opening beats, and the music is apparently written with a cryptic pen. After five or six tries, however, the individual sounds finally synchronize into a single, multitonal pulse worthy of adding itself to the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra's summer concert.

Similar "ah-ha" moments are happening next door, where the string section is working through its own challenges with Eric Gustofson, a member of the California-based DeVere Quartet. Among the large group of violin, viola and bass players are several young faces. Another room is full of woodwind players working through their contribution to the greater sound.

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Jane Linderman works on the french horn.  
It's a scene that's been repeated for some 20 years as musicians with the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra have driven long miles and spent significant time perfecting one classical work after another. Now celebrating two decades of musical accomplishment, this mix of central and southern Kenai Peninsula musicians say the pursuit is time well spent.

"When we first started, there were only four violins," said Maria Allison, a founding musician who plays not only the piano but the violin and viola as well. "We had to recruit players from Anchorage just to play in a performance. It was a constant struggle to fill out the orchestra. It still amazes me to look back and see all these violins."

The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra began after an earlier central peninsula orchestra, known as the Kenai Symphony Orchestra, had difficulty finding enough performers.

Even in the early years, Allison said, the music the orchestra played was ambitious.

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Roxanne Clingman, left clockwise, Marlene Blough and Barney Wilborg work through notes.  
"We started out with some really great stuff," she said. Performers commuted to Homer and the central peninsula for rehearsals, and practiced separately as well. In some cases, getting the entire group together for a rehearsal was impossible, and the performance was the first time players heard the work in its entirety.

According to Nancy Chambers, concertmistress and violin player who joined the orchestra almost 20 years ago, performers immediately made her feel comfortable, and the camaraderie remains today. She said as soon as she heard about the orchestra shortly after moving to the peninsula, she knew she had to play.

"We play for the same reason you grow flowers," she said. "They don't feed you but they feed your soul."

In 1989, Bob Richardson, who had been the orchestra director since its inception, left Homer, and Mark Robinson took the helm. Robinson, a choral director, said he did not take the position without some trepidation.

"Making music is making music, so that part's the same," he said. "There's a lot to learn about conducting an orchestra, so it was a stretch, and more than a little scary for me. And I suspect also for the orchestra members, as well."

The orchestra swelled under Robinson's direction, however, and began holding rehearsals in Ninilchik, allowing for a shorter drive for performers from both ends of the peninsula. The orchestra began bringing guest performers up, both to play with and to learn from, thus increasing the draw for local musicians.

-Each year, the orchestra performs several full-fledged productions in both the central peninsula and Homer area as well as the Summer String Festival.

Several years ago, youth began playing with the orchestra, especially in the string section. Robinson said the young performers became aware of the orchestra through its annual Young People's Concert, and as each increased their talent level, they were recommended to the orchestra by their teachers.

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Howard Hedges instructs the brass earlier this month in Ninilchik  
Having the additional string players is an asset, Robinson said, and the experience the youth receive playing with the orchestra is invaluable. Music, however, challenging, and the junior musicians must be dedicated to keep up.

"We are still fundamentally an adult orchestra and community," he said. "We don't tailor our music" to younger players.

Choosing music, regardless of the age issue, is always a challenge, Robinson said. Though a committee decides the appropriate scores for performances, it is still tricky to choose music with the right level of challenge.

"The trick is to play music that is just beyond where we are, but music we are capable of getting to. We have to balance it to keep players happy."

The technique seems to be working. When asked how the orchestra differs today versus 20 years ago, several performers who had been there since the start commented that while the music is no less technical, the sounds the orchestra is currently producing are much more advanced, with attention paid to subtle nuances and technique.

Ultimately, the fact that the orchestra has survived, and thrived, is a testament to the musicians' love of classical notes.

"In my mind, one of the most powerful human experiences with other people is playing music," Robinson said. "Music is such a soul-stirring endeavor. When you experience that with other human beings, for me, there's nothing like that. There's an emotional involvement. You are very tuned in to being alive. That's a powerful thing."