Columbia Orchestra hits 29 in fine form

Volunteers blend age, musical experience in 7-concert season


Howard Live

October 20, 2006|By Lauren Shovan | Lauren Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What began as a group of local string players gathering to perform classical music has grown to a 100-member orchestra with a schedule as demanding as many professional orchestras.

"It's about as big as they get," the Columbia Orchestra's conductor, Jason Love, said of the group's seven-concert season.

The Columbia Orchestra opens its 29th season at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School with a program of European music and a performance featuring classical guitarist Paul Moeller.

From its beginnings as a string ensemble in 1977, the orchestra has been a volunteer organization. It attracts a diversity of ages and musical experience, from professional musicians to amateurs rediscovering an instrument they put down years ago.

This is Love's eighth season as the orchestra's music director and conductor.

"What's really fascinating and really rewarding about working with the Columbia Orchestra is that they're really talented musicians," but have life experiences outside of music, he said. "Many of the pieces that we play ... a lot of people are playing it for the first time. It's wonderful to see the fresh enthusiasm."

Love and the orchestra's concertmaster are paid. The rest of the orchestra's members participate because they enjoy performing.

"Some of the people could have easily been professional performers," said Love.

Elaine Newhall, a private flute teacher, joined the orchestra in 1988 and is the principal flutist. "The idea of having a community orchestra right here locally was perfect," she said. "This is where I live."

The orchestra meets once a week for a two- to three-hour rehearsal. "It is a big commitment on the part of the players, but I think most people really enjoy it because it's giving something to the community," Love said. "It's a socially very engaging place to be at one of our rehearsals."

Newhall said Love is a good match for a volunteer orchestra. "He teaches us about the pieces," including their history and the composer's inspiration. "And he does it in a way that is not intimidating to non-professional musicians," she said.

Audience members who arrive early can participate in a Columbia Orchestra tradition, the Prelude program. Howard Community College faculty member Bill Scanlan Murphy presents a discussion before each concert, providing history and behind-the-scenes facts about the evening's program.

"Even if you know a lot about music, there's always something he has to share," said Love. "That makes your listening experience more rich."

The orchestra is rehearsing at the new Horowitz Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College. It has outgrown the Smith Theater's stage and its audience seating. This season, performances will be at Jim Rouse Theatre.

Newhall was on the orchestra's board for 15 years and has watched the group evolve.

"The orchestra we have today is very different from the one we had 18 to 20 years ago," she said. When Newhall joined, there were 30 to 40 members. "Now we'll probably have 100 people on the stage on Saturday night," she said. "We have four, five, six hundred people at every concert attending."

She has also seen the group's budget grow from less than $10,000 a year to more than $100,000.

Tickets cover about a quarter of the cost of running the Columbia Orchestra. The group seeks funding from local businesses and arts organizations including the Howard County Center for the Arts, the Columbia Foundation, and the Maryland State Arts Council.

One of the ways in which the orchestra stays active in the community is through an annual youth concerto competition. Winners perform as soloists with the orchestra.

"It really is a great way to inspire young people and a lot of the kids who have won the competition have gone on to some really great things," Love said.

Although the orchestra does not actively seek teenage players, it has some young members. Newhall said she enjoys the way the musicians of all ages and professions - the tympani player is a psychiatrist - "all fit together and get to know one another and become friends."

The musicians "have so much to bring to lots of different types of things and that's what I think audiences need," Love said. "Music is just a great way of communicating."

Tickets are $17; $15 for those ages 60 and older; and $10 for full-time students. 410-465-8777 or

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