For 40 years, the Music Company Orchestra has been performing up to four groups of free concerts each season in parks, retirement homes, schools, and community centers. Yet many people have never heard of the orchestra.
“We think we’re a hidden treasure,” said violinist and MCO board president Carol Blom.
On Saturday, the 60-member ensemble hopes a few more people will get acquainted with them when it holds its Cabaret 2014, an annual event that has been held at Michael’s Banquet House for more than 20 years.
Besides a concert, there will be the MCO’s own Red Hot Rhythm Royals — a dixieland band — a formal dinner, a silent auction and harpist Ralph Thomas, who will provide atmosphere during dining hours. The concert is the MCO’s only fundraiser.
Bringing the beauty of music to people is what the orchestra has been about since its founding in 1974, said flutist Jean Hayes, one of three charter members who still play with the ensemble.
“We actually began as a continuing education class in Ballston Spa for an adult orchestra,” she said. “Then, in 1973, we formed a pit orchestra at Ballston Spa High School.”
After that show ended, the group was to dissolve, but people decided to form an orchestra.
“That was May 21, 1974 and 18 people signed up. That included five flutes, so you know we had balance problems,” Hayes said laughing. “Myra King, a retired Ballston Spa music teacher, was our conductor.”
The group held together and by the 1980s the number of musicians had expanded to more than 40 players. When audience numbers also increased and the orchestra began performing in venues beyond the Ballston area, the players decided to name the group the Music Company Orchestra, Hayes said.
Conductors also came and went. They included King, Rand Reeves, who at first played French horn before conducting the MCO and would go on to conduct the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society before retiring in 2012; Joe Walsh, an insurance agent who conducted Johnstown’s town band; Al Solberg, a Burnt Hills school music teacher; and Dave Fisk, who served twice and was a cellist, a school music teacher from Worcester, and who would later head Jimapco; Emory Waters, a composer and state employee; Tony Pezzano, a retired Schenectady high-school music teacher; and Ralph Acquaro, superintendent of Mayfield School District.
Then as now, the membership attracted a wide range of occupations and ages from young parents to retirees, physicians, engineers, dental hygienists, physicists, retired music teachers and even some high school students.
“We come from all walks of life. We just like playing music. It’s fun,” Blom said.
It is not essential that players have music backgrounds and there are no actual auditions, but Hayes recommended that anyone interested in joining (currently there are only string openings), should sit in at a rehearsal to see if there’s “a good fit.”
In Hayes’ case, she played flute in high school and college, but she became an elementary school teacher and taught flute, had a student flute choir and occasionally played a few weddings. Blom, who joined MCO in 2005, actually has a master’s degree in oboe, but ended up directing the string program at Glens Falls High School until she retired in 2002.
“I made it my retirement goal to play violin in an orchestra,” she said.
Another aspect of MCO, which members feel is unique, is that they are the ones who run the show. Board members must play in the orchestra. All are volunteers. No one is paid except for the conductor. There’s an optional $20 annual fee, which if paid gives members voting rights.
The group’s range of capabilities makes for several challenges for its current conductor, Gerald Lanoue. His reputation as a bassoonist and conductor in the Bennington area, his music degrees from the Crane School of Music and the University of Southern California, and his familiarity with MCO from the two concerts he played as a bassoonist were enough for him to secure the job in 2011.
“There are technical challenges, but it is wonderful for me to have expectations and have them met,” Lanoue said. “Every year I’m surprised by their efforts.”
While the orchestra doesn’t play the big works like Brahms symphonies, it is adept with the Cabaret’s program, he said. Works will include a Sousa march, Khachaturian’s “Masquerade,” several arrangements of pieces by Stravinsky, Borodin, Broadway shows, and Bizet/Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” with concertmistress Heather Chang.
Since 1983, the orchestra has annually given scholarships to three high-school seniors in Ballston Spa, Burnt Hills and Ballston Lake, who will pursue music in college, and this year it will give a scholarship to a percussionist who is a member of the Empire State Youth Orchestra.
Funding comes through corporate sponsorships and donations, which help pay for an operating budget of about $15,000 that covers insurance, rental fees, storage and transport via trailer for percussion instruments, music stands, furniture, risers and the music library, Hayes said.
Although concerts are important, what the group likes best is that they meet every Monday night at the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School to rehearse, rain or shine, from September through June.
“We like playing music together and many friendships have formed,” Hayes said. “It’s a real community.”