For the Highland Park Strings orchestra, camaraderie among dedicated musicians has served as the group's driving force.
On Nov. 3, the ensemble kicks off its 35th season with a 3 p.m. concert at Highland Park High School.
Founder and co-principle cellist Lawrence Block attributes this endurance to the String's diverse mix of devoted individuals.
"Every other orchestra I can think of, they're all so-called, 'fully professional.' What that means is that they were hired; for them it's just a gig without any real loyalty," Block explained. "We, however, have a core group who has been with us for over 20 years. The combination of these dedicated amateurs — although at a very high level — with a smattering of professionals is the reason we've achieved such great success."
Beginning in 1979, the Highland Park Strings made a name for themselves offering free performances to an appreciative community. Block describes the initial inception as a musical outlet for regular workers.
"We were all doing other things at the time. I was a lawyer, we had doctors, we had dentists — it was like a businessman's group," Block said. "But we were also very accomplished chamber musicians, playing in small groups and quartets."
With each person chipping in $5, 14 original members met once a week at West Ridge Center. What started out as casual gatherings soon turned into committed rehearsal time.
"Because there was no obligation, any given week we would have three cellos and only one violin. It was hard to play anything due to the irregularity of who would attend," Block recalled. "So I came up with the idea of having a performance. This way, everyone would have to come to rehearsal. The concert was in December of '79 at West Ridge."
Block joked that the 30-member audience included mostly family members. Yet as word spread, so did the Highland Park Strings. Three concerts would follow during the next season. Before long, the Strings began their staple of four shows a year to audiences of more than 700 people.
"It was a dream, and sometimes dreams come true. When I look back on our record — over 350 different works and over 50 members of the Chicago Symphony playing solo with us — to me it's a miraculous thing," Block said. "When I look at the audiences and then look at the orchestra members who have been so loyal to us for so many years, I get such a thrill. It's been one of the highlights of my life, no question about it."
Donations and assistance from the Park District of Highland Park have allowed the Strings to continue playing for free. When Block considers throwing in the towel, he turns to the outpour of community support.
"We don't have a board of directors, and I basically volunteer to help keep things going," Block said. "And every year when I say to myself, 'Well, maybe this should be the end,' I get calls from audience members saying it was the best concert we've done in 34 years. That encourages me to continue."
As the Highland Park Strings approach their Nov. 3 milestone, Block predicts he'll feel gracious while still looking ahead.
"I always speak before each concert, and sometimes it's hard for me to hold back my emotions. I'm sure I'll have tears in my eyes," Block said. "It's wild to think we started out playing music written only for a string orchestra. When we started bringing in wind players, that opened up a whole new repertoire. The last concert of this season calls for 17 wind players. Needless to say, there's a lot more music to be heard."
For more information about the Highland Park Strings' 2013-2014 season, visit highlandparkstrings.org.