LOVERS BY NIGHT
Orchestra offers escape from day jobs
The amateur often gets a bad rap. Dabbler, dilettante, hobbyist, layman, nonexpert, tinkerer — these are all synonyms, courtesy of MerriamWebster. And what critique could be crueler than to describe someone or something as amateurish? But the word itself is derived from the Latin word amator, for lover. And when it comes to the all-volunteer Santa Fe Community Orchestra, which offers free concerts throughout the year, it is all about love — a love affair with music. Its season opens with a musical preview and talk, “Anatomy of a Symphony” on Friday, Oct. 8, and a concert on Sunday, Oct. 10, at St. Francis Auditorium.
“We are amateurs in the best sense of the word,” said Oliver Prezant, who is beginning his 12th season as director, in an interview with Pasatiempo. “One difference between a professional orchestra and us is the schedule.” Professional groups are paid to work very quickly, often putting programs together in a matter of hours, he said. “We get nine rehearsals before every concert. We get to live with the music. We work very hard to realize a level of ensemble and engage with the music.”
There are retired professional musicians in the orchestra as well as younger players who combine a love of music with the nurturing of families and careers, and there are some members who are fairly new devotees to music and to their instruments. James Preus, a bassoon player who has been with the orchestra for 17 years, is proud to be a part of a group in Santa Fe offering free concerts. “We are building an audience for classical music. People who otherwise wouldn’t go to see a concert can come.” Preus has a Ph.D. in psychology and worked for many years for the University of Minnesota. He also played with the Minnesota Orchestra.
“I doubt anywhere in the country will you find a community orchestra as good and with as wideranging and intelligent selection of music,” said cellist Carl Condit, who attended the CollegeConservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati but decided not to pursue a career in music. (“Too competitive. I do this for fun.”) He works as the director of operations at Sunstone Press in Santa Fe. “We all love music so much. We play challenging pieces. We do our best on the hard stuff. It’s fantastic.” Condit writes the program notes for the orchestra and enjoys doing research about the composers and music. It was his suggestion to take on Bohuslav Martinu’s˚ fourth symphony at the orchestra’s season opener. “It’s got its challenges and quirks,” he said.
Monica Ruiz played the violin throughout elementary school and beyond but put down the instrument when she entered pharmacy school. Today she commutes from Las Vegas, where she works as a pharmacist at the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute. “I’ve come back after 20 years,” she said. “It’s so exciting. Playing the violin is something from my childhood that I thought I had lost.” She has been with the orchestra for three seasons. “At the end of every year I say, wow, that was amazing.” Her job keeps her very busy, but she makes the time to learn music. “I try to look at a little section and practice every day.” She recently married Ralph Marquez, a jazz drummer who works at NMBHI, and recruited him to help out as a percussionist with the orchestra.
At a recent rehearsal held in the social hall at St. John’s United Methodist church, the group was working its way through the Martinu˚ symphony. As a conductor, Prezant seemed to offer a combination of musical understanding and humor. “It’s a little noisy, thickly orchestrated, with four or five things going on, but we’ll sort that out,” he said. At one point he told the woodwinds, “That was too charming; give me real attack.” For another section: “Run it like a racetrack that’s curvy, not like a march. Follow the shapes in a line ... feel the harmony moving around.” He told the trumpets. “You’ve got to get your spurs on.”
“Oliver is amazing,” said Ruiz. “What often starts out sounding disjointed on first reading becomes beautiful in six weeks’ time. He breaks down phrases.” In addition to conducting, Prezant plays the viola and has played with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, Santa Fe Opera, and the California Chamber Virtuosi. Since taking the job with the community orchestra, he has focused on building up the string section, including doing sectional rehearsals that he schedules on his own time. “It’s my own volunteer work,” he said. “There’s a mentality needed for a violin section to play together.” The musicians spend a great amount of time working on bowing and articulation. “For a brass player, the breathing is natural, but the dynamics of the bow is really difficult. You get different sounds from different parts of a bow. We focus on the basics you need for artistic playing.”
Also on the program for the season-opening concert is the Sinfonietta by Leosˇ Janácek,ˇ which was dedicated to the armed forces in Czechoslovakia and has a large contingent of brass players. Prezant recruited trumpet players from Santa Fe High School to augment the orchestra, part of his mission to “partner
meaningfully” with the school music programs and young musicians of Santa Fe. A focus on young people’s concerts has evolved recently into a more multifaceted approach to the orchestra’s educational outreach programs. Martha Caplin, a violinist who has been concertmaster of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and is now a Santa Fe resident, visited two middle schools while preparing to solo with the community orchestra. The students learned some of the music the orchestra would be playing and then practiced with Prezant as conductor and Caplin as soloist. Finally, they attended a SFCO performance in which the pieces were performed, which gave them the opportunity to witness a “high-level” performance by someone they knew.
Soloist Angela Gabriel, who plays the xylophone in the orchestra’s performance of Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints, Op. 211, by Alan Hovhaness, has been working with two elementary-school classes in which the teachers are instructing their students on small xylophones. The students will perform two short pieces on xylophone and glockenspiel during the concert. A performance of Haydn’s oratorio from The Creation at the Cathedral Basilica was augmented by 60 singers from the choral programs at Capital and Santa Fe High Schools. “It was a rare opportunity for the kids to sing with a live orchestra. Some had never even been in the Basilica,” Prezant said.
Later in the season, the orchestra will present familiar works, like the William Tell overture by Rossini and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances on Dec. 5. On the same program, Sally Guenther, formerly the solo cellist of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Norway, joins the orchestra for the Milhaud Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 136.
Feb. 26 marks the popular Let’s Dance performance, an evening of swing and ballroom dancing to live music. Prezant said the free event attracted 850 people to the Santa Fe Community Convention Center last winter (“Clearly, people are hungry for that kind of evening out.”), and he is hoping to repeat the success this year.
In March, the orchestra performs Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor. The April 17 concert features the winner of the SFCO Concerto Competition and a performance of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6. “The orchestra has been asking to play that for many years,” Prezant said. The season finale features Copland’s suite from Billy the Kid, plus a world premiere from the winner of the New Mexico Composers’ Competition, a contest the orchestra holds every year, and the Brahms concerto No. 1, Op. 15, in D minor with pianist Ioannis Potamousis.
Prezant appears in two “Anatomy of a Symphony” concert previews during the season. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for anyone interested in classical music. I’m chatting about the composer with a full orchestra on stage, so I can take apart the music, and then you can hear what I’m talking about. I can say that Brahms was reclusive, and then find it in the score. It’s an engaging way to get involved with the music.”
Oliver Prezant with members of the Santa Fe Community Orchestra