On a warm summer night in downtown Nanaimo, a group of string players gathered for a one-night concert at St. Paul’s Anglican Church.
The music fell from the balcony, where the players sat, to the audience below. Bruce Farquharson was there, playing cello, the night the Nanaimo Chamber Orchestra was formed.
He said the church’s then-musical director, Chalium Poppy, gathered the musicians from across the city nearly nine years ago.
“He wound up the summer by putting together a few string players,” Farquharson said. “He’s the one who lit the spark.”
Poppy was called away soon after to a new opportunity in Calgary. Not wanting to let the new group fall apart, Veronica Wagner stepped up to lead.
“We talked her into becoming musical director for this group to continue,” Farquharson said.
A few years later, violinist Karl Rainer took over as artistic director and operated the orchestra like Wagner – without a conductor.
“Usually we’re playing with nobody waving,” Rainer said. “Rehearsals are exactly the same except I have a violin in my hand.”
The musicians must listen closely to each other and other sections, anticipate and react to the changing speed, volume and intonation of the orchestra – skills all musicians want to hone.
“It develops more the musician’s ear,” Rainer said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a team full of stars if everyone’s running in a different direction.”
The orchestra is entirely made up of strings – no brass, woodwind or percussion section. The group is also considered amateur – they don’t play for pay – which makes it more accessible to musicians.
That was the case for Farquharson, he said, who started playing cello after retiring as the head of John Barsby community school’s science department more than a decade ago.
Trained as a geologist, Farquharson taught high school science before taking up the cello at Nanaimo Conservatory of Music. He is also director for the Island Consort Chamber Choir, started in 2007 to perform classical works from the late Renaissance and Baroque periods.
“It became my retirement project,” he said. “It’s a gem of an opportunity.”
While amateur adult musicians strengthen their skills, so too do young musicians, often having their first solo experience with the orchestra.
The group holds its Concerto Competition every year in February for a young musician to be the featured soloist at its June concert. This year’s winner is violinist Jessica d’Oliviera.
“It’s not something kids get to do is practising being a soloist,” Rainer said. “That’s a little more demanding than being part of the orchestra.”
The students must develop the skills and attitudes necessary to lead the group, said Rainer.
“Being a soloist is kind of like being in charge,” he said. “You really see [the students] blossom as you see them lead a full group.”
The ultimate goal of the orchestra is to have fun while learning and playing music. Rainer said he selects repertoire from all eras and it’s not uncommon for the group to go from Bach to movie themes.
“This group is all about having a good musical time – for us and the audience,” he said.
The orchestra’s next concert had a distinct Russian feel, with Romanian folk dances from Bartok and Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in E-flat Opus 109, featuring Chris Helman on saxophone.
Although the group usually plays without a conductor, Rainer will take the podium while Helman plays the saxophone. Helman studied music at the University of Ottawa and University of Alberta. He also performs with The Tan Trio.
The orchestra also plays Vivaldi, Bach and Gabriel’s Oboe, by Ennio Morricone, from the film The Mission.
From Russia with Love is set for Saturday (March 24), 7:30 p.m., at Brechin United Church. Tickets $20; $10/students; free/children under 12. Please call 250-754-8550 or visit www.porttheatre.com.
For more information, please visit http://nanaimochamberorchestra.com.