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There’s still music in that old viola

How the Lake Geneva Community Orchestra brings music to long-quiet instruments.

Duncan Pledger/Contributor

(Published Oct. 3, 2007, 2:57 p.m.)

There’d been a viola quietly living in our basement for the past 39 years. I’d bought it with hopes of playing it in the school orchestra when I was a college student, but never seemed to have the time to practice. Soon afterward the instrument went into more or less permanent storage. Over the years, I’d occasionally run across the old cellar-dweller, take it out of its musty case and play a few notes to see if it (or I) had improved with age. Invariably the answer was “no” and back it went to age some more.

Then, a year ago I heard about an orchestra in Lake Geneva that was looking for new members—especially violas! And, much to my surprise, no embarrassing audition was required. I mentioned it to my wife.

 “Do I have the nerve...” I wondered out loud, “to get that fiddle out and see if I can actually put it to use before I die of old age?”

I found the orchestra’s Web site and got in touch with the conductor. The summer pops season had just ended and rehearsals were starting up for the fall. Perfect timing! I roused the instrument from its long hibernation and spent the next few days trying to remember the basic fingerings.

The Lake Geneva Community Orchestra, as I was soon to learn, is a rather remarkable group. A number of years ago there was a community orchestra in Lake Geneva, but it disbanded.

Then, in 2001, the group was reborn under current conductor, Andrew Dogan. Only eight players showed up for the first rehearsal, but under his leadership it has experienced phenomenal growth. With a current membership of over 60, the group now performs some of the major symphony repertoire.

 I was welcomed into the section, and nobody gave me dirty looks when my debut was marred by missing at least half the notes in the opening passage of Mozart’s “Overture to the Marriage of Figaro.”

The membership is diverse. Teachers, truck drivers, lawyers, beauticians, builders, businessmen and a Catholic priest are only a few professions found in this eclectic group who step out of their everyday lives Thursday nights to become classical musicians.

The range of formal musical training also varies widely. Some have never had a music lesson in their lives, relying on natural ability and hard practice to learn their parts. At the other end of the spectrum are folks who were college music majors, as well as a few very talented high school kids. Unlike some community groups, however, there are no “ringers” — paid professionals who are brought in to hold the group together during concerts.

As in my own case, many of the players were musically active sometime in the past, but for various reasons stopped playing. Once you perform, though, it seems to get in your blood and while the urge to play may be suppressed for a time by jobs, family or finances, sooner or later it kicks in again.

Although we’re amateurs, the orchestra has a high degree of professionalism. No goofing off during rehearsals (that comes later), and when conductor Dogan steps onto the podium the social chatter stops. This is because of the respect the players have for Andy, as he’s usually called. We appreciate his hard work to build the size and quality of the orchestra, and his ability with the baton.

The respect goes both ways, too. There’s no singling out of individuals for musical indiscretions, nor does Andy indulge in the artistic tirades that some conductors are wont to do.

As you can probably tell, I like this group. It’s a low-pressure fun bunch that works hard and is fiercely loyal to each other and our conductor. For me, the long drive (Lake Geneva is an hour away from where I live) is well worth it.

Like any unfunded fine arts organization, though, we have our problems. Currently we have no permanent “home” where the percussion instruments and other equipment can be stored, which is forcing the group to explore the possibility of moving. This, of course, would result in extending the drive for some members who are already stretched to the limit, and personnel could suffer.

There are also budget worries. In spite of efforts to find donors and advertisers who support the group by buying space in our programs, meeting our expenses is a challenge each season. None of us, including the conductor, is paid to perform. In fact, we actually pay a $20 membership fee each year to help cover music, rental fees and miscellaneous equipment needs.

Learning the music takes hours of practice and the miles add up, but who’s counting? Getting up on a stage behind all those bright lights and morphing into a concert artist for the evening is an experience that makes it all worth it.

Join the Orchestra

The Lake Geneva Community Orchstra is always looking for new members. If you have an instrument hiding out in your cellar. why not dust it off and join us? Get in touch with us at: www.lakegenevaorchestra.org.



The author also writes a regular outdoor column for The Week’s sister newspaper, The Janesville Gazette..



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