Roaring Fork Music Society plays Aspen High graduation |

Roaring Fork Music Society plays Aspen High graduation

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – One thing that became evident to Nancy Thomas is that her music students needed more opportunities to play in an ensemble. So last fall Thomas, along with a handful of local music instructors and parents, formed the Roaring Fork Music Society, a string symphony that would give young players a chance to improve their group skills.

“I was getting calls from parents to do something like this,” said Thomas, who moved to Aspen in 1961 to play at the Aspen Music Festival and went on to be a violist in the Aspen Festival Orchestra for 35 years. “There was pressure from a few, saying their kids needed something of this sort: ‘We need something for them. We need more.'”

Symphony in the Valley, the Glenwood Springs-based community orchestra, was not the right spot for the musicians, Thomas added.

It also became evident to Thomas from the outset what the young musicians didn’t need: music that was over their heads and scores that would simply frustrate them. She recognized that most of the players weren’t just young; they were inexperienced. One cellist who turned out for the Music Society had had just three lessons. The last thing Thomas – who calls herself the manager of the organization, and is also one of the mentors who sits in with the orchestra – and Bill Capps, the group’s conductor, wanted was to see them flailing on difficult music.

“Bill and I decided they’re going to play music that they absolutely can play,” Thomas said, adding that a handful of adult musicians – violinist Ross Kribbs; cellist Sarah Graf; bassist Ellen Stewart; Wendy Larson, a former conductor of Symphony in the Valley; and Deborah Barnekow, the outreach coordinator for the Aspen Music Festival – have been instrumental in launching the orchestra. “So we started with really, really, really easy stuff, like a four-point chorale. It’s better that they work on things they can really sink their teeth into. Where they can actually play it. We want them to incrementally solidify the stuff they can bring to the music.”

The Music Society comprises 14 students, ranging in age from 12 to 17 – an age when, Thomas has learned, there are competing commitments to school, sports and social events. So the group meets just once a week, for an hour and a quarter (though Thomas hopes to bump that up to an hour and half in the fall). Still, Thomas is pleased with the progress that’s been made in just seven months. When the Music Society appears at Saturday’s gig – for the Aspen High School graduation ceremony at the Benedict Music Tent, at 12:30 p.m. – the program will include movements from Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” and Rameau’s “Tambourin,” with three musicians taking solos, as well as the Swedish folk tune “Boda Valsen”; Jay Ungar’s “Ashoken Farewell,” used in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” series; and a Handel aria. When the seniors pick up their diplomas, the orchestra will play Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the traditional music of graduation ceremonies.

Not all of the orchestra members were thrilled to start out with the basics of music-making. “We had them complaining, ‘Oh, we’re going backward; this is too slow,” Thomas noted. But she said the slow pace served a basic need: helping the students learn to read music. Most of them were playing largely by ear.

“So we work on making connections with notation,” Thomas said. “It’s stuff that’s very elementary. But they need routining. And I don’t find them fighting it.”

Thomas says the progress has been vivid. At the first rehearsals last October, it was “total chaos. One’s out of tune, one doesn’t know when to come in. Now, we start and they are ready to go. That takes a lot,” she said. At the small handful of performances – a house concert in December, at the Aspen Senior Center in January, and at the Aspen Chapel and Basalt Regional Library in March – Thomas said, “the music was, in its way, lovely and classy.” Saturday’s program raises the ante: “The stuff we’re playing at the graduation is definitely up a notch.”

Thomas says her attitude wasn’t overly sanguine at the beginning. Her worry was that there simply were not going to be enough musicians to make the effort worthwhile. But attendance has been good, enthusiasm runs high, and when an experienced violin teacher dropped by a rehearsal recently, she gave a thumbs-up to the quality of the music. After the Music Society takes a summer break following today’s performance, Thomas knows what her task will be when the group reconvenes in the fall.

“I’m going to beat the bushes for more musicians,” she said.

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