It was, by all accounts, a near-death experience: Not even two years
after the String Orchestra of the Rockies gave its first performance, a
half-dozen people -- virtually all that remained of the orchestra and
its board of directors -- gathered in the living room of cellist Fern
Glass Boyd's four-plex apartment and wondered whether they should end
Orchestra founders Sarah Avery and Russell Guyver, the dynamos
who'd whooshed into town like a firestorm charging up musicians with
notions like conductor-free performing and getting paid for their work,
had moved to Alaska. The board of directors had all but dissolved. The
excitement that had catalyzed the players, the supporters and the
audiences only eighteen months earlier had fizzled, replaced by doubt.
Could the orchestra survive these losses? Should it even start another
Losing Avery and Guyver was a major blow. "It was really their
baby," Boyd says of the string group. The newlyweds, who'd met while
playing in orchestras in Venezuela, had been traveling the West in
search of a home where they could start a conductor-less string
orchestra, and had settled on Missoula.
"We put them up for a while,"
recalls Mavis McKelvey, "and we discouraged them in every way, shape and
form." She laughs. "It's such a small community, and they had such
grandiose ideas." The couple dreamt of world fame, and, when McKelvey
suggested a bigger city such as Portland, Ore., they headed west -- only
to return to Missoula ten days later with a determination to start their
string group here.
Before long, they had cellists Boyd and Christine
Ranf, bassist Don Beller, and violinists Walter Olivares and Madeline
McKelvey as enthusiastic about the notion as they were.
were charismatic," Madeleine McKelvey says. "I think we all jumped on
board before we'd even heard them play. They were so enthusiastic and
charismatic and so devoted to this idea."
"We came with an idea, and
little else," Guyver says from his home in Greeley, Colo. "We thought
the nicest thing to do would be to start an orchestra with no
conductors. We'd played in too many orchestras. We were really sick of
Artistic control was their primary motive, Avery says:
"Cooperative solutioning" allows every musician in the group a say as to
a piece's tempo, or its bowing, or how loudly or softly it should be
played. And, yes, finding consensus among twelve to fifteen musicians
has been tricky at times, to say the least.
"We all grew up playing in
orchestras with conductors, so it was a new thing -- innovative,
artistically rewarding," Olivares says. "There were moments when things
One major challenge, says violinist Colleen Hunter:
"Learning how to communicate with each other in positive and affirming
ways." She slants a sly smile.
Yet the idea was an exciting one from the
very start. Avery and Guyver borrowed the concept from a group in
London, where they'd lived for several years, and their enthusiasm
infected nearly everyone they talked to, it seemed.
said was something that resonated for me," Boyd says. "I was
"They'd go to a grocery story and meet some people, and
suddenly we'd have a new board member," says Madeline McKelvey. Asked to
perform at a funeral, she referred the job to Guyver, she says -- who
came back with some money, which he needed badly, as well as a
commitment from the priest, Ed Stupca, to sit on the board of directors.
People liked the couple's egalitarian approach, not only to the
performances but also to the music and its audiences, Boyd says. Avery
and Guyver spoke of quality music for the common soul.
"In the early
'80s, it was a unique idea about how to sell classical music," she says.
"Classical music enthusiasts admired an elite art. Russell and Sarah,
they just wanted to crash all those barriers."
That was one reason
behind the explanatory talks accompanying each piece the orchestra would
perform. At the same time, the players would deck themselves out in
formal evening wear: "The tails made it more special; more elegant. The
talking made it less highbrow," says Johann Jonsson, an original member
of the orchestra and its artistic director since Guyver's departure.
orchestra transcends other kinds of boundaries, as well -- including
geographical ones. Jonsson, a music professor at Montana State
University, came from Bozeman to rehearse and perform with the group,
and over the years players from Great Falls, Spokane, Kalispell and
Billings have joined, as well.
The intrastate approach was a necesssity
at first; there simply weren't enough quality, professional players in
Missoula to fill out a full string orchestra. That has changed, but the
group's geographical diversity has not: Members say they relish the
opportunity to play, and learn from, a variety of musicians.
"It was an
opportunity not to be such a provincial place," Boyd says. "That's how
they (Avery and Guyver) envisioned it, always: not just a Missoula
group, but a Montana group. It was so stimulating!"
The original, core
group, however, were Missoulians through and through -- seven musicians
with a dream to share. To drum up support for their cause, they gave a
chamber music concert in late 1984 in the Art Museum of Missoula. It was
the Christmas season, Mavis McKelvey remembers, and no one knew what
"We set up chairs in the main gallery for about forty
people, and we were swamped," McKelvey says. "I mean, hundreds of people
came!" (According to a newspaper report, 131 attended.) "They sat on the
stairs going upstairs; they sat on the floor, everywhere. We had candles
and punch and cookies. It was so moving. Suddenly there was this
outpouring, and we knew there was an audience here that was eager to
have this kind of music."
There were doubters, however, who wondered how
a town the size of Missoula -- about 35 percent fewer people lived in
the area then, according to U.S. Census figures -- could support another
classical music group. Missoula already had a symphony, people pointed
"Not everyone was for the idea," Olivares says. "We were the
visioners, but doors didn't open automatically, so you had to fight. You
had to struggle, like anything that is new.
"Some people might have
questioned, `Are you going to make it? Do we have the interest in the
public?' That interest grew little by little, based on the quality of
the music, the love for what we did, and the perseverance of the core
"There was a lot of skepticism back then about starting up
another musical group and being part and parcel of such an effort," says
Dr. Peter Phillips, the orchestra's first board president, now retired
and living north of Seattle. "There were so many good artistic endeavors
going on in Missoula at the time. There was a lot of activity going on,
and people were stretched in terms of donating their time and donating
Former president Robert Chaney, on the board in 1988-90,
remembers approaching business owners for sponsorships and hearing them
decide to give their symphony money to the string orchestra, instead.
Chaney, though, would have none of it: "I'd say, `Don't you dare! They
were there first." Most of the time, those business owners would pony up
cash donations for both organizations, he says
From the start, the
orchestra struggled -- to pay its musicians (a very small stipend), to
buy music, to pay soloists (much less than they were used to getting).
But the dean of UM's School of Fine Arts, Sister Kathryn Martin, helped
immensely, arranging to lend the Music Recital Hall free of charge for
performances and finding work on campus for both Avery and Guyver.
Energized by the response to their art museum concert, though, the core
group reached out and pulled in players from all around to perform in a
new way -- without a conductor -- and to play music written especially
for string orchestras.
"There was a whole bunch of music out there that
wasn't being played," recalls violinist Walter Olivares, now teaching
and conducting at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. "It was a new
repertoire that we presented to people."
For its debut concert Feb. 17,
1985, the orchestra's twelve players offered the music of Vivaldi,
Elgar, and Bach. Tickets cost six dollars: "Very low, so that anybody
could come," Avery says. "We figured, they can go to the movies or they
can come to hear the string orchestra."
Money took a back seat to
ideals, yet the orchestra at least once during those early years filled
the Music Recital Hall -- and then some. Mora Payne, an original board
member, worked the gate for that concert, and she learned a valuable
lesson, she says: "We turned away seventy-five people, and some of them
were not very happy. That's when I learned you can only sell your
Yet people came back, again and again. The orchestra developed a
"very regular, loyal audience," recalls Guyver, that continues to this
"It's a special thing," violinist Colleen Hunter says. "The
audience out there are old friends" who greet the orchestra with
enthusiastic applause before they've played their first note. "The
warmth of the applause is very special. You're looking out there and
smiling, and you're picking out familiar faces."
Strapped for cash --
"We were scraping for every penny that we could get from wherever, to
make it go," says Olivares -- the orchestra relied on its own members'
talents that first year, eschewing soloists for the time being. The
strategy worked: In a Bozeman concert, the orchestra's performance of
Shostakovich's "Chamber Symphony, Op. 110A" left its audience
"It was an amazing experience," Avery says. "Russell spoke
about the piece ... and then we played it -- and then the audience was
completely silent. That was kind of a goose-bump thing."
One month after
that Bozeman concert, a "chamber ensemble" sub-group of the larger
orchestra gave a free performance under the Caras Park tent in Missoula.
On the program: Mozart and Brahms.
"It was such an elegant concert,"
Mavis McKelvey says. "It was so good. (Former mayor) Dan Kemmis was
there. Sarah Avery was expecting her first child in early August, and
Madeleine (McKelvey) was expecting twins coming in October -- and both
of them were enormous! But they were elegant. They got up in their
maternity dresses, and they were playing away. I just remember it as
being a very joyous occasion and they played beautifully. It was such a
Before the orchestra's first full year was up, though,
it had brought in a soloist: soprano Elisabeth Braden of the New York
Opera performed with the orchestra, singing "Les Illuminations" by
Benjamin Britten as well as soprano arias from Handel's "Messiah."
Braden was a close friend of Avery's, and so was willing to play in
Missoula for practically nothing -- plane fare plus $200 was what the
orchestra paid in those says, Jonsson says.
Today, the price has gone
up, but not by much: Guest soloists typically receive plane fare and
$800, a pittance compared to the salaries they normally command, Jonsson
says. "They come because of a personal connection," he says. "We don't
get players from an artist's agency."
Over the years, players of nearly
every instrument have guested with the String Orchestra of the Rockies,
sometimes in unusual ways. Jonsson recalls a December 2000 concert
featuring soprano Mary Logan Hastings: He played the first violin in a
Vivaldi concerto and Hastings sang the other part, in syllables like a
jazz "scat" singer.
Sometimes, though, the orchestra has had to stretch
its resources to attract players. In 1993, with a budget of $20,000 to
fund four concerts, the orchestra hired pianist Norman Kreiger of New
York City to play Paul Hindemith's "Theme and Variations: The Four
Temperaments." The cost: a $450 royalty in addition to Krieger's
expenses and stipend. "Spending our buffer," Jonsson told the Missoulian
at the time. It was worth it, Boyd says now.
"With his level of
professionalism, he elevated the whole orchestra to his level," Boyd
says of Krieger. "It was one of the best concerts we've ever played.
also went into a financial hole that took us a year to get out of. It
made me realize that we need to do that: We need to take risks if we're
going to continue to grow."
Risk-taking? That's standard operating
prodecure for the String Orchestra of the Rockies. Jonsson routinely
includes 20th-century music in its programs, and the group has premiered
several pieces including, in December 1986, "Inventions for 12 Solo
Strings," written by Guyver for the orchestra, and "Sumer is icumen in:
Have a God Day," also by Guyver, at its 10th anniversary concert.
orchestra also commissioned a work by Missoula composer David Maslanka.
"Music for String Orchestra" premiered Nov. 30, 1996, "a very wonderful
piece," Guyver says. "I just thought it was beautiful writing. I
remember the last movement being fieldishly difficult. It's an extremely
lyrical piece; wonderful music."
Yet there are limits to how far the
orchestra will go. Jonsson's approach to designing its musical programs
is a three-legged one: incorporating old with new works, keeping the
selections playable -- as far-flung as it tends to be, the group gets a
maximum of 10 hours' rehearsal together before each performance; and
keeping its audience in mind.
"They're sophisticated; they know their
music, but they would not stand for only difficult, avant-garde music,"
Jonsson says. "If we did that, we wouldn't have an audience."
wouldn't have an orchestra, either," Boyd retorts.
It's been a juggling
act, at times, for musicians and board members alike, balancing the
artistic inclinations of the musicians with the tastes of their
audiences with the often harsh fiscal realities.
"We were very
idealistic," Avery says. "Money and art: I don't think those two ideas
were quite connected. What was driving it was idealism and optimism, and
not any kind of reality."
The disparities between financial goals and
artistic ones made being on the board of directors a challenge for some
-- including Dr. Harold Braun, who served as president in 1986 and Ô87,
and who remembers well those dark times after Avery and Guyver left the
state. The clincher -- the glue that, at last, held the group together
-- was a newly acquired $10,000 coal tax trust fund grant, Boyd recalls.
"The coal tax grant was a great gift," she said. "If we hadn't had that
grant, I don't know if we would have survived.... We just couldn't let
that ten thousand so wasted! It was a sign: We had to keep going. And we
did. It wasn't easy, but we did it."
Not easy: That's an understatement,
as a glance at newspaper headlines will show. "Rockies Orchestra gets
over jitters," said the Missoulian in December 1985 -- a great place to
be, but it didn't last long. "Financial woes hamstring future of
orchestra," read the headline a year later. By 1988, the newspaper
announced, "Orchestra enjoys outlook for the future," yet the group
never ended a season in the black until 1989, when its credits exceeded
its debits by a whopping $600.
Two years later, the orchestra began its
new season "broke but optimistic," the Missoulian reported. "It was kind
of frightening going into the season not knowing if we could pay the
players," board member Allisen Justman was quoted as saying.
was another problem the orchestra faced. Musicians with full-time jobs
and symphony schedules might have found it too grueling to make four
weekend trips to Missoula per season for marathon rehearsals, an evening
performance, and then a return trip home early Monday morning. Whatever
the reason, turnover was high in the orchestra's early years, which made
playing well together even more of a challenge, at times.
always an element of seeing each other for the first time," Boyd said in
1990. "We're never able to completely build on what we had from the
Yet they persevered, winning grants to keep afloat, working
with kids in local and rural schools, doing some limited touring --
always an elusive goal for this group, whose members have longed from
the very beginning to take their music to the state's more isolated
"There are lots of people out there who don't have any idea
of the music that we make and what it's like," double-bassist Don Beller
says. "When they come, they're amazed, and we have converts. This music
has enriched our lives so much, we'd like to be able to do the same for
as many of the people here as we can."
It's a symbiotic relationship,
the asking of support from the community and the giving back of the gift
of music to the community and, to individuals, homage.
Starting with a
spring 1987 concert in honor of Gerald and Paroda Ann Doty, musicians
both who started the first Suzuki String Program in Missoula, the
orchestra periodically honors those who've made a difference in
Missoula's music community with concerts dedicated to them.
In 1992, the
orchestra commemorated original member John Ellis, a keyboardist who'd
also played organ at the Wilma Theater, and who died in July 1992. Boyd,
a close friend, performed Barber's "Adagio for Strings" in his memory.
In 1995, the orchestra devoted its fall concert to John Lester, a voice
teacher at the University of Montana for 33 years. His daughter Joanna
Lester and three other sopranos, Nancy Senechal Schulze, Twila Wolfe and
Jeanne Couture Kostelic; Greg Devlin, tenor; and bass-baritone John
Semmens sang to piano accompaniment by Dennis Alexander, Steve Riddle on
bass and Rick Brinkman on drums.
Others they've honored include Guy
Gebhardt of Plains, whose generous endowments to the orchestra beginning
in 1998 have allowed the board to make investments and, in Jonsson's
words, "have an operations budget that's operational."
remembers that concert well, when Gebhardt, in his jeans, plaid shirt,
and suspenders, rose to accept the accolades of the orchestra and
audience for his gift. "Such a nice, gentle kind of man," she says.
"Pure Montana. I thought, only in Montrana can this happen, where a
rancher gives this kind of money to a string orchestra."
the orchestra honored Missoula philanthropist Gilbert Millikan for his
posthumous gift of $15,000 for touring. The April 2004 concert featured
Paul Coletti, professor of viola and chamber music at UCLA, performing
Bach's "Concerto in E flat major, for Viola, Strings and Continuao."
gifts the orchestra has received over the last decade have allowed it to
stop worrying about money and focus on what its members do best: play
music. According to Robert Chaney, they do that pretty much the best of
anybody around. "They're so good, without question," he says. "That's
the main reason I went to their concerts in the first place, and it's
the reason I still go." "The quality of the orchestra has always been
high," Mavis McKelvey says. The orchestra's main problem over the years,
she says, has been attracting a big-enough audience.
That's not the case
any more. As its calibre of musicianship has continued to rise and,
McKelvey posits, the number of guest artists such as Ian Swenson and
Amit Peled has increased, attendance has burgeoned in recent years and
especially in recent months -- selling out the Music Recital Hall and
leading the orchestra and its board to wonder how to accommodate more
Increasing the number of concerts to two in a weekend is one
possibility. Moving to a bigger venue is another. Each has its drawbacks
-- the loss of intimacy a bigger space would effect, for instance. "We
love the Recital Hall because the acoustics are wonderful," says Philip
West, the current board president. "But when we like something as much
as the String Orchestra, we want to share it."
But with the orchestra on
its financial feet, there are other, more pressing questions for the
board to ponder -- such as paying its regular musicians a better wage.
That's a priotity for West, and it's one he's happy to be able to tackle
at long last.
"We've had some bumps in the past," he acknowledges. "But
this year, especially, seems to have a good feeling."
If you are interested in more history, or just want to know everything there is about The String Orchestra of the Rockies, you can now find the complete record archives (1985-2011) in the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana, Missoula.
Click here for a Guide to the Records.