Orchestrating local musicians Conducting: Catherine Ferguson has brought recognition to the 20-year-old Columbia Orchestra.

January 30, 1998|By Carolyn Melago | Carolyn Melago,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Fourteen-year-old Catherine Ferguson was enraged by the way the dawdling conductor of her junior high school band was more interested in hearing his own voice than improving the talents of the young musicians.

"When I got home," she says of that memory from her Colorado childhood, "I was furious. I had steam coming out of my ears. I thought, 'I can do better than him.' "

For the past eight years, she has gotten the opportunity to do just that as music director of the Columbia Orchestra.

The members of this amateur group that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year seem to think that she is doing just fine.

"She is trying to inspire us to do the best we can," says Bruce Kuehne, who has played violin with the orchestra since its first season. "She gives us a chance to grow into something we wouldn't have become if we didn't have her."

Ferguson, 38, has to walk a fine line dealing with amateur musicians -- pushing their level of quality while maintaining a spirited and enjoyable atmosphere that keeps them coming back.

"We have people who've been coming to rehearsal every week since 1978," says Elaine Newhall, who has played flute with the group since 1988. "We've tried to keep improving the level of the orchestra, keep improving the quality of the music. But we've tried to do it in such a way that members enjoy coming."

The orchestra can trace its roots to a 1977 gathering of about 10 musicians in the Hobbits Glen living room of founding member and violinist Holly Thomas.

"We shoved furniture around, and everyone brought a chair," Thomas says, sitting in the same spacious room. "And it was sufficient."

"It was very much a recreational group then," says Newhall, whose husband, Bruce, has played viola with the group since 1980. "They didn't put it as a priority to put the name out. I think we're beginning to be successful at that."

Soon, Thomas says, the orchestra "grew out of the living room." In 1988, a full wind and brass section was added, and practices were moved to area schools. The group now has 70 members, aged 14 to 82.

Still, before Ferguson arrived in 1990, the group had not received much publicity.

"When I first got here," Ferguson remembers, "I'd talk to local business people, and they'd say, 'Oh, we have an orchestra?' "

Now the group has loyal audiences, and Ferguson is well-known in Columbia. While sipping coffee in Wilde Lake Village Center one morning, Ferguson was greeted every few minutes by a steady stream of people.

"The community is accepting us," she says. "Now, the business leaders say, 'How's the orchestra doing?' "

The musicians have been busy lately, preparing for their "Mostly Mozart Extravaganza" tomorrow in Smith Theatre, and wrapping up their Young Artist Competition.

The Mozart concert will feature two guest soloists: pianist Rhoda Jeng of Baltimore and bassoonist Gloria Duerr of Ellicott City. The Young Artist Competition, which allows students showcase their talents with the orchestra, chose its three winners Sunday.

Playing in the orchestra means squeezing a 2 1/2 -hour Monday rehearsal -- and six concerts a year -- in between the demands of jobs and families.

"This is something for them to do for themselves, not their family, their business or office," Ferguson says of the musicians. "It's their outlet, their chance to get on stage and shine. As adults, a lot of people don't get that chance."

Thomas says the group has developed a strong camaraderie under Ferguson. "I think that she's an excellent conductor," Thomas says. "I think she has grown along with the orchestra. The blend is wonderful, and there's a good symbiotic relationship between the orchestra and Cathy."

That doesn't mean the rehearsals are without stress. Ferguson, who earned master's degrees in violin and conducting at the Peabody Conservatory, has learned from the mistakes of other conductors -- starting with that one in junior high -- and molded her own strictly business philosophy on music instruction.

Unlike some of her colleagues, Ferguson refuses to, as she says, "run through pieces quickly and expect the musicians to just play." Instead she insists that the orchestra repeatedly practice small sections of music that need the most work. And though she compares her job to that of a football coach, Ferguson jokes that she holds shouting to a minimum.

About seven years ago, Kuehne remembers, Ferguson introduced a contemporary piece that the orchestra would perform in front of the composer of the music. The musicians were nervous.

"I'd never heard of the composer, and I'd never heard of the piece," says Kuehne, who has played violin since he was in third grade. "That was one of the first experiences when she increased our confidence. When we first looked at the music, we didn't think we could do it."

For Ferguson, there's something almost mystical about music, a universal quality that everyone can grasp. And she hopes the orchestra can convey that to its audience.

"Music is like another language. It's a language that imitates the human voice, that's innate to all of us," she says. "I don't think you have to be educated. You just have to try to appreciate it."

And Ferguson has experience converting die-hard hard rock fans to the softer sounds of Beethoven and Mozart while teaching music appreciation classes at Essex Community College.

But Ferguson is cutting back on her teaching to devote more time to conducting. She moved from Towson to Columbia so she would be closer to the orchestra. Conducting has become almost scientific to Ferguson, who has developed her own pre-performance ritual.

"I need to be by myself. I literally have to have the music in my head," she says. "There's a special ESP between the conductor and the orchestra. If I have it set, it just exudes out to the audience. It works like magic."

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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