When you hear "chamber orchestra," do you automatically think long-dead composers, snootiness and solemnity? If you said "Yes," then Thomas Wilson wants to enlighten you.
"A chamber orchestra almost screams 'stuffy,'" says the music director of the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs. "And audiences come in and hear us, and they hear and see a lot of energy, and they realize that's not at all our approach. They also look at what we do in the greater expanse of our season and they realize that we're not just Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — we're reaching out a lot further."
Further indeed. After reaching 30 years in the business in 2013, the Chamber Orchestra is flourishing. Membership and attendance figures are up, and collaborations with other local organizations (to include last month's world premiere of How Green Was My Valley with the Colorado Springs Conservatory) and schools make up a cornerstone of the Chamber Orchestra's mission.
The Indy sat down with Wilson and board president Nasit Ari to kick off the new season (details here) and to size up the Chamber Orchestra today, from A to Z.
A: Local musician and composer Mark Arnest entered the orchestra's 30th anniversary composition competition with "Ludlow: Four Scenes for Orchestra," commemorating the coal strike tragedy of 1914. Wilson scheduled it for the season opener on Oct. 18-19.
B: The organization strives to go beyond Beethoven, but it hasn't neglected the old master. After their February performance of the Ninth Symphony, Ari had to help two people out of their seats. "They were physically so excited they just couldn't move. Incapacitated."
C: The orchestra collaborates with other community cultural organizations, including the Pikes Peak Library District. For the All Pikes Peak Reads 2013 selection of Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, Wilson and Co. invited cellists to perform Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's "Fratres." Orchestra musicians accompanied Galloway's book signing and lecture.
D: Mezzo-soprano Jennifer DeDominici will perform Hector Berlioz's "Les nuits d'été (Summer Nights)" for Romance by Moonlight Nov. 22-23.
E: The Oct. 18-19 performances also showcase Beethoven's "Eroica," aka the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 55. Program notes call this "the symphony that changed everything, ushering in the era of the Romantic symphony."
F: Acclaimed violinist Mark Fewer, whom Ari describes as being at the crossroads of jazz and classical, will stop by to play Michael Daugherty's "Fire and Blood" for the On the Edge concerts on Feb. 28 and March 1. The concerto was inspired by Diego Rivera's murals depicting the automotive industry.
G: The Chamber Orchestra has collaborated with the Gospel Music Workshops of America's local chapter for performances drawing audiences of all races. Ari says Peggy Shivers, soprano and philanthropist, was especially moved at a performance she attended. "She turns to me and she says, 'That's the most beautiful crowd that I have ever seen.'"
H: Another old master, Franz Joseph Haydn, also will be on the Romance by Moonlight program, with the orchestra performing his "Le soir (Evening)."
I: The orchestra aims to be "innovative, inspiring and involved." These goals have moved it beyond its humble beginnings in 1981, when retired musicians founded the ensemble, and its first performance in 1983. 2007 stats included 200 season subscribers and 300 attendees for all five shows that season; 2016's goals are 500 subscribers and 750 attendees.
J: In April, the organization partnered with Mitchell High School to stage hip-hop opera The Jogger and the Dinosaur, which included student-created lyrics and music.
K: First violinist Jacob Klock is one of the orchestra's more visible faces, thanks to his position as concertmaster, sort of the conductor's deputy.
L: Joseph Liu, who won the 2013 Amateur Pianists International Competition, will perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K.491, during the season premiere.
M: Felix Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Overture, op. 21 will close out the Romance by Moonlight program.
N: Next year's concerts include On the Edge, Feb. 28 and March 1; and the season finale, The Last Dance, May 2-3. The 2015-2016 season is already set, a luxury afforded by stable finances and a base of dedicated musicians.
O: The symphony's outreach starts with performances at Broadmoor Community Church and First Christian Church, plus events including that hopera (see "J") and the Green Box Art Festival in Green Mountain Falls. The goal is to get young people hooked on live music — of any genre — in hopes that they'll turn to classical music as they mature. "We have to realize that the work we do now for the education side is not going to pay off for a long time. In fact, I may not be here to see it," Wilson says. "The reality is that people come to the concerts when they're ready."
P: Pre-performance speakers include George Preston, KCME general manager, at the "Eroica" concert; and Tania Cronin, a Colorado College professor, at Romance by Moonlight.
Q: It may seem odd to mention "quiet" in a music story, but that's another orchestra goal: Musicians want to offer a sanctuary from the modern world's hurly-burly. "People are just so stressed these days, and to have something that is very real, to sit down, shut off the phone, stop the world for a second and just be in that space is very important," Wilson says.
R: Speaking of Preston, you can hear the Chamber Orchestra on the radio when KCME broadcasts performances on select Sundays every month.
S: The orchestra, all 40 pieces (a number that fluctuates a little throughout the season), played Songs for All Ages in Nancy Lewis Park in August.
T: Emirhan Tuga, a clarinet virtuoso from Turkey, will help close the season in May's The Last Dance concerts.
U: The orchestra has teamed with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to give college credit to student musicians accepted into the orchestra. And Dr. Jane Rigler, assistant professor of music at UCCS, will speak before the On the Edge shows next year.
V: Section violin and viola are among the outfit's current openings. Auditions will be held Sept. 15 (tiny.cc/ufjjkx).
W: Wilson picked up the COS baton in 1996. He laughs when Ari describes him as the "master of prudent risk-taking." He laughs even more when Ari says, "You come to Thomas with any stupid idea and he will take maybe five, 10 minutes and he'll have a solution." He's also the associate conductor of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic and teaches at Colorado College and the Colorado Springs Conservatory.
X: Sadly, the orchestra does not include the xylophone, so we'll fall back on "xploration." Ari devised the word to xplain (sorry) the way live music can take audience members on unexpected journeys into their own senses.
Y: Violinist Sarah Phillips is young — now 14 years old, she was just 13 when she aced a blind audition for the assistant concertmaster position last year. As Ari tells it, "The person who ran the audition came to Thomas and said, 'Thomas, do you realize you just chose a 13-year-old as your assistant concertmaster?' and Thomas apparently said, 'I never exercise ageism and I'm not going to do that now.'"
Z: Wilson admits that rehearsals can be zoo-like, but he and the musicians approach zen during performances.