They call them­selves the ’Rona Quartet

Four out-of-work mu­si­cians gather around town for the joy of play­ing for oth­ers after months of iso­la­tion

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY STE­FANO ES­POS­ITO, STAFF REPORTER ses­pos­ | @sle­spos­ito

The mu­sic floats down a nar­row, weedy gang­way to a backyard on the North Side, where four French horn play­ers sit, so­cially dis­tanced, their in­stru­ments gleam­ing in the late-morn­ing sun­light.

A car­di­nal some­where up in the high branches of a huge sil­ver maple adds its own ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the piece they’re play­ing, “Frip­peries for Four Horns,” by Low­ell Shaw. A mid­dle-aged cou­ple step out onto their deck over­look­ing the gar­den to lis­ten.

“There are a lot of bees out here. What’s go­ing on?” said Mary Jo Neher, swat­ting at the lit­tle in­sects buzzing around her an­kles dur­ing a pause in the mu­sic.

It’s a small in­con­ve­nience for Neher, 42, and her fel­low Chicago-area horn play­ers, who are thrilled to be play­ing with other hu­man be­ings after months of iso­la­tion at home.

“One of the things I’ve missed was the feel­ing of throw­ing my case on my back and go­ing into the garage to go to work,” said Neher, a free­lance mu­si­cian. “There is so much in that mo­ment: I have a pur­pose. I’m not just Mom, keep­ing ev­ery­one alive and teach­ing at home. I just yearn for that ba­sic feel­ing.”

About a month ago, Neher fig­ured other out-of-work horn play­ers she knew would have that same yearn­ing. So she posted a call for mu­si­cians on her Face­book page. And so for the past few weeks, she, Jeremiah Fred­er­ick, Joanna Schulz and John Schreck­en­gost — all pro­fes­sional horn play­ers — have been mak­ing mu­sic as the ’Rona Quartet, a ref­er­ence to the dis­ease that has kept mu­si­cians ev­ery­where apart.

A cou­ple of weeks ago, they played in Welles Park. Last week, they were in Portage Park. This week, they’re head­ing to Senn High School, where they’ll play the Frip­pery piece, which brings to mind Fred As­taire and Ginger Rogers on a danc­ing stroll through New York’s Cen­tral Park in the spring. Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” and Ge­orge Gersh­win’s “Sum­mer­time” are also part of the pro­gram, as well as a med­ley of Lady Gaga songs ar­ranged by Neher’s hus­band. A lit­tle some­thing for ev­ery­one — given that chil­dren are just as likely to be part of the park au­di­ence.

“We thought it would be a fun way to re­mind peo­ple that there is mu­sic out there and that there are peo­ple want­ing to do their jobs,” Neher said.

Schulz said she’s no­ticed a pe­cu­liar side ef­fect of play­ing in a group after not hav­ing done so for so long.

“There are just so many more col­ors in my dreams,” she said.

It’s a byprod­uct of the way mu­sic stim­u­lates dif­fer­ent parts of the brain, Schulz said.

The con­certs are free, and there’s no hat for do­na­tions.

“Money would be great — don’t get me wrong — but, emo­tion­ally, this has gone a long way to keep­ing our spirits up,” Neher said. “Hon­estly, we’re so ex­cited to play for peo­ple. When I came home [after a con­cert last week], I was al­most in tears. I just felt like me again.”


MARY JO NEHER, on play­ing around town with the ’Rona Quartet


Pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians (from left) Jeremiah Fred­er­ick, Mary Jo Neher, John Schreck­en­gost and Joanna Schulz, all out of work dur­ing the pan­demic, play a free con­cert in Schulz’s backyard in Horner Park on Satur­day.

FAR LEFT: Mary Jo Neher plays her French horn on Satur­day.

LEFT: Suzanne Mus­cari and boyfriend Roland Heyne look on as John Schreck­en­gost and the other mem­bers of the ’Rona Quartet play in Joanna Schulz’s backyard on Satur­day.

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