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The Alpine Orchestra: Bringing the classics home

Article by Mary Woods

Local Arts – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHERE IN THE WORLD could a neophyte violinist and wannabee-Texas-fiddler be welcomed into the ranks of a serious classical orchestra? The same place where teachers, miners, nurses, librarians, veterinarians, attorneys, students, retired military, media professionals, and oh yes, professional musicians, also devote their time and creative skills to producing orchestral music.

In the Upper Arkansas Valley. In the Alpine Orchestra.

In May of 1991, Cheryl Tischer and Teclia Cunningham invited local musicians to form a group dedicated to the performance of orchestral music. Fifteen musicians answered the call, and in December of the same year, the Alpine Orchestra was incorporated as a non-profit organization.

On a Monday afternoon I met Cheryl Tischer at Cabinet Wholesalers in Salida, where she is the general manager. I wanted to know what had inspired her to start an orchestra.

When Cheryl moved to Salida in 1975 no classical music was being performed on a regular basis in the Upper Arkansas Valley. Later, there was more music performed locally, but Cheryl says she wanted to be able to hear classical music year round — not just in the summers at the Aspen Concerts.

Alpine Orchestra in practice
Alpine Orchestra in practice

Cheryl had studied music and played the viola in grade school and high school. As an adult she was occasionally invited to play for a women’s club meeting or other event. For these performances she used to borrow friend Marge Engel’s viola; she had long since given up the instrument of her student days.

Then, the High Country Fine Arts Council asked musicians to play for their first musical stage production, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Cheryl remembers the main components of the pit orchestra as being a piano, drums and viola.

Finally in 1991, Cheryl, in league with Teclia Cunningham, sent out the call for other classical musicians, and they created the Alpine Orchestra. And once again Cheryl had her own viola.

Cheryl and her husband, Joe, raised their son and daughter in Salida where she wanted to expose her children to string music but “…there was nowhere to hear (classical music) locally, so we had to play it.” She said,”my kids had never seen a cello until…” they attended the first Alpine Orchestra concerts.

What changes has Cheryl seen in the Orchestra since its inception? “The number and type of instruments are greater now. The quality of the sound has improved, and the balance of the instruments is better.” She recalls an early incarnation when the orchestra sported five flutes, two clarinets and “lotsa trumpets.” The years together have created a greater ensemble feeling in the orchestra, Cheryl says, and greater confidence.

Often the choice of music played reflects the taste of the conductor. In Farrell Coy, the orchestra has found a conductor who constantly challenges the players to exceed their grasp. The encouragement to push the end of the envelope, as the orchestra takes on more complex pieces, is for the musicians partly thrill and partly plain old hard work.

So why does Cheryl do it? Three concerts a year, plus home and kids and managing Cabinet Wholesalers? Cheryl puts it succinctly, “Music helps me get through the rest of the week.”

Violinist Judy Maestrelli in practice
Violinist Judy Maestrelli in practice

THE ORCHESTRA CELEBRATED its 10th anniversary this year. It now boasts 40 or so members who volunteer their time and talents to produce three concerts a year, free of charge, to audiences in Leadville, Buena Vista and Salida. Concerts are performed on one weekend in May, August and December.

Members of the orchestra come from all walks of life to rehearse under the direction of a professional conductor once a week for over two months to prepare for each concert. Musicians from Buena Vista, Crestone, Colorado Springs, Howard, Leadville, and Salida gather in Buena Vista for rehearsals. The core of the orchestra are year-round members, but seasonal residents swell the ranks in the summer to perform in the August concert.

I caught up with Paul Ilecki, a relative newcomer to the Alpine Orchestra, at Bongo Billy’s Salida cafe where Paul is an owner. As Paul rolled out dough for a pesto brioche, he gave me a short history of his music background. His education includes taking a Masters Degrees in both music and theology and a Doctorate in Education. When I asked Paul how his studies in the two disciplines of music and theology related, he described them as “two languages that speak the same reality.”

FOR YEARS as a Paulist Father, he was the Church Music Director at Saint Paul the Apostle Church at Lincoln Center in New York City. He also filled in with free lance work, playing oboe. The gigs were primarily chamber music and classical. Gradually, Paul’s personal goals turned to the contemplative life, and his musical goals also shifted. As he put it, musical pursuits in New York “can be spiritually vacant.”

He went on leave from his order to join the Trappists at their Monastery in Snow Mass, Colorado. There he learned the harp and cello in order to accompany their guitarist. Paul says his music “took a deep shift” and he now plays “music from the inside” and he considers his playing an ongoing part of “soul work.”

Conductor Farrel Coy and violinists Sylvia Hazlerig and Jim Moore
Conductor Farrel Coy and violinists Sylvia Hazlerig and Jim Moore

What advantage does Paul see in playing with the Alpine Orchestra? As an educator, he enjoys performing a solo with the possibility of inspiring other musicians to do their best; a confident performance can pull along less fluent musicians. And he says he is inspired as well by the other players. In an orchestra “the chances of making beautiful music are compounded … if you have 20 musicians, the chances are that you will have a whole which is more than just 20 kinds of music … an orchestra ‘s sound is greater than merely a multiple of its parts.”

Paul also plays harp for the dying through Hospice, as part of his spiritual/musical path. For him music seems to enhance the progress of the spirit.

The pesto brioche he prepared to sustain the palates of his customers seemed pretty appetizing as well.

A new element was added to the Alpine Orchestra’s production in the year 2000. Under the direction of Dr. Farrell Coy, retired college professor, dean and exceptional jazz musician, the orchestra performed its December concert as part of a worldwide benefit for Hospice International. In each time zone around the globe, on the appointed day and hour, an orchestra and chorus performed Handel’s Messiah to raise awareness for the Hospice movement and support for our local Hospice. A ninety-voice choir was assembled and rehearsed to perform with the Alpine Orchestra as the designated performers for the Hospice event in the Mountain Time zone.

The Alpine Chorale will return this December to perform another masterpiece in concert with the Alpine Orchestra: Haydn’s “Creation.” Based on the six days of creation in Genesis, this Oratorio is historically second only to the “Messiah” in frequency of popular production. Nonetheless, it’s a rare treat for the Upper Arkansas Valley.

THE CHORALE will feature soloists Patty Smith, Jeanne Kostelic and Dorothy Coy, among others. Their performance resum├ęs are impressive, as is their talent. The volunteer chorale singers draw on experience from Grand Opera to church choir, and rehearse with dedication to create their performance.

Dr. Coy says he has performed in productions of “The Creation” several times over the years, but this concert will be his first opportunity to conduct the Oratorio with a full Chorale and Orchestra. The “Creation” premiered to great acclaim in Vienna in 1798. But from Papa Haydn’s time to the present, the chorus has rarely boasted such numbers. There is no substitute for the sheer dramatic power of 90 voices.

This is pretty heady stuff for a wannabee-Texas-style fiddler like myself, who began violin lessons at the age of 37. After a few years of study, under the tutelage of Teclia Cunningham, who spent ten years playing with the Amarillo Symphony, I was beginning to unlock the secrets of written music. Teclia invited me to sit in with the second violin section of the orchestra to further my education. She can do that; she is the concert mistress and first violinist as well as a founding member. As it happens, the accomplished musicians of the seconds’ section received me with kindness, patience and a great deal of encouragement. (I don’t know what the oboes think.)

Tympanist Gloria Riddle-Roe
Tympanist Gloria Riddle-Roe

SO HOW DOES IT FEEL for a beginner like myself to be on the “inside” of the music? Imagine playing an instrument in unison with six or so musicians, making one part of a huge ensemble of sound. Each section of strings, brass, percussion, woodwinds and keyboard voices a part in the great musical machine which is the orchestra. The conductor, the master navigator, leads each section to build and blend a whole audial experience greater than its parts. Consider that the virtues of each played instrument transmute the acoustical properties of a hall. This is physics. This is alchemy. This is the thrill of music performed live.

Add to this explosion of sound the power of 90 voices — enhanced by soloists — and a great confluence occurs. Live, not Memorex. An audience doesn’t just passively listen to this stuff. The audience, like the player, vibrates in the middle of the music.

This December, the Alpine Orchestra and the Alpine Chorale, under the direction of Dr. Farrell Coy will perform Haydn’s “Creation” in three concerts: Friday, December 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Leadville at the Mining Museum; Saturday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m. in Salida at the John Held Auditorium in Salida High School; and Sunday, December 9 in Buena Vista at the Mountain Heights Baptist Church, time to be announced.

I hope you’ll be in the audience swept up in this great tide of sound. I know I’ll be there, albeit counting and trying not to play “in the holes.”

Mary Woods is a professional actor and narrator, and a wannabe Texas fiddler. She lives in Salida, and has played with the Alpine Orchestra since 1995.