With the spring semester in its final stretch and assignment due dates fast approaching, Wilkes University students have a lot on their plates right now. Some more than others.
For members of the Chamber Orchestra, Civic Band and Chorus, the end of the semester doesn’t just mean hitting the books. It also means tuning instruments and clearing throats, practicing, practicing, practicing and, last but not least, getting ready to perform some very big concerts in front of some very big audiences. Fortunately, they won’t be going it alone.
Since 2003, the Wilkes Chorus has teamed with the NEPA Philharmonic on a semi-regular basis, with recent collaborations taking place almost biannually. This year, the two groups will partner, along with other area choruses, for a performance of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” at the Scranton Cultural Center, at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 27. Tickets for the event cost $28-60, but student tickets are available for $15 (for student tickets, call 570-341-1568).
Chorus director Stephen Thomas explained why Brahms’ piece stands apart from other compositions in the requiem tradition.
“Historically, a lot of composers save their best efforts for requiems,” he said. “The thing that’s really special about this piece is that, previously, the point of a requiem was to speed the soul’s journey to heaven. In Brahms’ case, he was more interested in the people left behind. It’s not so much a prayer for the souls of the dead as it is a message of comfort for the living.”
Lawrence Loh, the NEPA Philharmonic’s music director, also has a master’s degree in choral conducting. For him, being able to bring Brahms’ revolutionary “Requiem” to life with both the philharmonic and a chorus of more than 100 at his disposal is immensely rewarding.
“I like the combination of students and adult chorus members,” Loh said. “This chorus is a combination of three different choruses: The Choral Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania and the choruses of Wilkes University and Marywood University. That brings together a lot of different viewpoints and people at different stages of their lives. When they’re all singing together the same text, it brings an assortment of meanings to this one piece.”
While the Wilkes Chorus and NEPA Philharmonic have a long history together, for the university’s Chamber Orchestra, history is in the making. Saturday, April 28, will mark the new group’s first public performance.
“Up until last semester, before and since I came to Wilkes there had been a string ensemble. What that means is a collection of violins, violas, cellos and string basses,” Philip Simon, the director of the orchestra, explained. “I felt as though adding a small wind section, basically pairs of woodwind instruments, trumpets and French horn, would give the sound of the group more body and more flexibility.”
The group’s ability to play a wider variety of music will be on full display at 3 p.m. on Saturday, when it performs in the Upper Lobby of the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center for a free concert. Among the music the group will perform are compositions by Beethoven and Mozart, waltzes by Strauss and even a pair of mariachi numbers.
Before spearheading the group’s expansion, Simon himself was a member of its strings-only incarnation, playing string bass for several years. It’s a perspective which Simon said afforded him a unique understanding of what the ensemble needs to grow.
Sophomore environmental engineering major Kristen Chorney plays flute for the Chamber Orchestra. She’s witnessed the group’s sound evolve firsthand.
“I think we support each other really well,” she said. “In the beginning, you could hear the different, individual sections. But the other night, when we got together, we played pretty much every piece we’re going to play in the concert, and it sounded really good. All the sounds are coming together nicely and blending very well.”
Simon already has plans for the future of the orchestra, including a possible fundraiser event in the fall. In his view, the more robust, well-rounded sound and new educational opportunities are just some of beneficial side-effects of the group’s expansion. Another is an increased sense of unity, bolstered by the feeling of strength in numbers.
“There’s a level of confidence you feel when you know someone’s got your back,” he said.
As the Chamber Orchestra is cementing its sense of unity, Civic Band members Earl and Nancy Orcutt are already more than 40 years deep in their own. That’s how long it’s been since the two first met. They were both music majors at Wilkes. She needed to learn how to play the trumpet, and he taught her. Their shared passion for music led to romance and they’ve been almost inseparable ever since.
Their love affair with the Civic Band has proven just as strong, with the pair being members almost continuously since the late 1960s.
“It’s definitely one of the premier musical organizations in the area, especially of non-professional groups,” Earl said, explaining what kept he and his wife coming back again and again. “We also have one of the best music libraries of any college in the region.”
More than anything, though, it’s the love of playing, and playing alongside similarly passionate musicians, that attracts them.
“It keeps us young,” Earl said.
The Orcutts will perform with the Civic Band – Earl on French horn and Nancy on bass clarinet – at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 29, as part of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Kirby Park. This event is free and open to the public.
Civic Band director Simon appreciates the Orcutts’ dedication to the group. He also pointed out that the Civic Band’s status as a joint college-community ensemble means that students have had the chance to play alongside adult professionals and semi-professionals like the Orcutts, music teachers and even former members of The Metropolitan Orchestra.
“I think what makes this the perfect set-up for what we do at Wilkes is that the experience of the older folks … rubs off on the younger folks who are just coming out of high school,” he said. “It gives them the confidence to play and to take some chances and develop and grow as musicians.”
The material the group will be playing on Sunday includes pieces ranging from circus marches to arrangements from “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” with the pièce de résistance being Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”
“The ‘1812 Overture’ is one of the one most difficult orchestral transcriptions in the entire literature,” he said. “If you come to the concert and hear what this band is playing, I think you’ll be pretty impressed.”