One of the benefits of being “old” is having a wealth of memories. And often, memories bring joy and nostalgia of the past. Now that I am happily old and rich with memories, I take time to listen to Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s music —his symphonies, chamber music, 16 short orchestral-pieces known as Slavonic Dances, only to mention a few.
Interestingly enough, Dvorak’s most admired works — “The New World Symphony” and “American String Quartet” and his only cello concerto — were not composed in Czechoslovakia but in New York, where he lived between 1892 and 1895 as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. While there, he was particularly moved by Negro spirituals that depicted the hard life the African slaves endured in the United States — back-breaking labor, powerlessness and yearning for freedom. In fact, some scholars believe that Dvorák’s influence on his students at the National Conservatory gave roots to the music of Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and jazz king Duke Ellington.
Last Sunday afternoon, I attended a concert of the Overland Park Orchestra (conductor: Jim Funkhouser — a former Kansas City Symphony horn player) at Tomahawk Ridge Community Center at 119th and Lowell streets to hear Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, which the Kansas City Symphony had performed countless times while I was a member.
As I entered the community center, I cautioned myself not to expect too much since this orchestra isn’t a professional group and the pieces in the program are quite demanding — Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor by German composer Otto Nicolai, Caucasian Sketches by Russian composer Ippolitov-Ivanov and Symphony No. 8 by Dvorak.
Today, everyone listens to recorded music so much that often live performances are not well-appreciated, unless the performers are extraordinary musicians. Though music exuding from a box might sound polished and slick, one doesn’t get the sense of the “moment” the music is produced or the performers’ approach to the music he or she plays.
Nearly a hundred music lovers — mostly senior citizens and a dozen children with their parents — were waiting for the concert to begin in a large meeting room that had a low ceiling with fluorescent light fixtures and a carpeted floor. There was no raised stage for the performers; a 60-piece orchestra was warming up with passages from the music they were about to perform only a few feet from the first row of the listeners.
As the concert began, I recognized some musicians who had occasionally played with the symphony while I was there — during a concert tour or for pops concerts. Usually a community orchestra is made of amateur musicians, music students and semi-professionals who have jobs outside music.
Flutist Charles Jessup, a retired optometrist, is one of them. In a recent conversation, I learned that he often participated in the music program at the Indiana University School of Music, while he worked on his degree in optometry. The reason he didn’t pursue a career as a symphonic flutist was because finding a job in a professional symphony orchestra, which only needs three flutists, is extremely difficult, and also he wanted to help mankind, in his case, people with vision problems. A former Air Force serviceman during the Vietnam War era (1972-1974), he played more than 30 years with the Overland Park orchestra and also with the Civic Orchestra — while working as optometrist full time.
A retired staff member of a local school district, Nancy Clark, also a flutist, informed me that the members came from all areas of life — freelance musicians like herself; a former personnel manager of the Kansas City Symphony; a retired judge; young professionals; small-business owners; high school and college students; retired music teachers; retired firefighters and more.
Besides giving four free concerts a year, the orchestra also has been performing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet at Yardley Hall with American Youth Ballet Company in Kansas City every Christmas season.
“We all love music and try our best to play well,” Clark said. “Playing in an orchestra like this is one way we can maintain our skills and share our gifts with music lovers in the community, beside interacting with like-minded people.”
Music always leaves something to remember and cherish, either to the listeners or to the performers. It is a proven fact that music enhances learning in young minds, heals emotional injuries and boosts energy for the weary and burdened.
This concert had something for everyone: The audience enjoyed a healthy dose of Romantic music without paying a penny or driving to downtown; the musicians all played to their hearts’ content, and I, a retired musician, was filled, too, particularly by Dvorak’s sensitive, nostalgic melodies throughout his 8th Symphony.
I want to hear this orchestra again, hopefully in a better hall with a decent sound system, better stage lights and a raised wooden stage where the musicians could hear themselves better and the audience could see them better.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history. Reach her at email@example.com.