The tradition is for orchestras to bring in the biggest, splashiest soloists they can entice to perform with them: A major symphony orchestra brings in an internationally-acclaimed music star; a smaller orchestra brings in a national or regional musical star; a school or university invites esteemed professors to be soloists and/or holds competitions for their highest-level students to earn the honor of performing as a soloist with their orchestra; a community orchestra will bring in a local musical celebrity as soloist. Never, ever are members of community orchestras – amateur musicians by definition – invited to perform as a soloist with their own orchestras. Well, as in many things, EMSO sees things differently.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of a community orchestra is the diversity of its membership. In a professional orchestra, members’ backgrounds, education and professional aspirations are generally quite similar; their history and reason for being in the orchestra is also usually very similar. However in a community orchestra a chemist might be seated next to accountant, a teacher with an attorney, to name but a few possibilities. Some members have advanced academic degrees in very specialized fields, some members have little or no advanced education. Some members of a community orchestra may have studied their instrument almost their entire, long life, while others may have come to their instrument quite recently. One of the great delights and greatest challenges in working with a community orchestra is that each member has a unique musical history and upbringing, a unique education and professional life, a unique level of musical accomplishment, and many individual reasons for participating in a community orchestra. It can be a daunting task to create community and cohesion from such a vast array of components!
Orchestras can also be pretty anonymous places to be as a musician; a single person can almost be invisible in a sea of musicians (all wearing black for performances). The work that we do as an orchestra is fairly predictable as well, rehearsing a set number of times together to prepare public performances of great (or at least interesting) works of music composed in advance by composers from a variety of eras and geographic locations. So as music director of this very diverse-yet-predictable community, I’m always searching for ways to enhance the musical experiences of our members, and to find the means for them to step forward out of that sea of anonymous musicians, to show each other, our audience, and even themselves something of their unique selves. This is where the idea of a Home Cookin’ concert came from.
Many months in advance of a Home Cookin’ concert, orchestra members are invited to volunteer to be a soloist with the orchestra (with a piece of music they select) and/or to form small, chamber ensembles to perform with as part of our concert. Our first Home Cookin’ concert took place in March, 2003, and featured only two soloists! In this, our 8th Home Cookin’ we are sharing the stage with eight featured soloists (including two duets) and four chamber ensembles, as well as one orchestral work composed by a substitute member of the orchestra!
So what do these concerts accomplish?
• For the orchestra members who step forward as soloists they receive a unique opportunity to prepare and perform as soloist with the orchestra they work with as section members the rest of the season. It cannot be overstated what a formidable task it is to prepare to be soloist with the orchestra. Many professional musicians prefer not to take this on, and those that do generally have years of experience and preparation to do just this. A side benefit to this experience is that we as an orchestra get to know our soloists as individuals and support them through this unique process. By reading the short biographies they write for our printed program we learn some quite remarkable things about our individual members.
• Those who perform in chamber ensembles must create an additional set of rehearsals, often finding that learning to work productively and felicitously in a small group is quite different from being part of a large orchestra. Chamber music offers some of the greatest learning experiences for a musician for just these reasons.
• For orchestra members who choose to “stay seated” in their place in the orchestra comes the experience of preparing and performing an extraordinary expanse of accompaniments for our soloists. In many ways it is actually more challenging to prepare and perform seven small pieces than it is one or two large ones. It is equally challenging to adjust to very diverse sets of musical and performance styles, responding smoothly and eloquently to the constantly-shifting needs of a range of soloists, all on one program.
• And through this program our audiences are introduced to some of the many individuals who constitute our orchestra, and perhaps begin to see that sea of people clad in black for the remarkable collection of individuals they are.
We do not purport to be the Minnesota Orchestra or St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in level of expertise, but through our Home Cookin’ concerts we get to display more fully some of the unique individuals who populate our musical community in a way you simply will never see from another community orchestra. I cannot begin to express how impressed I am with the musical and personal courage our Home Cookin’ soloists and ensemble members display, and how proud I am of their accomplishments. Please join us!
Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes
Music Director and Conductor