Despite dismal wintry weather, 40 people of all ages turned out recently to watch the Columbia Orchestra rehearse.
The event — one of three open rehearsals offered each season — occurred midway through preparations for the all-volunteer orchestra's Jan. 31 concert, "Cinematic Inspirations."
Conductor Jason Love noted that audience members had the opportunity to observe how the music comes together, then interact with the musicians on a break.
Love, who became the group's fourth conductor and music director in 1999, likes to let the audience in on the group's inner workings as a way to demystify the classical music world.
The North Carolina native said it also inoculates the community against "the disease we battle," what he calls the "I didn't know Columbia had an orchestra" syndrome.
The orchestra was started in a Columbia living room in 1977, a decade after the planned community was founded by James Rouse.
Today, "we have well over 100 musicians on our roster, making us larger than most professional orchestras," said Love, 44. "And we are one of the busiest community orchestras in the nation."
The Columbia Orchestra has multiplied its audience since Love took the reins, climbing from an annual attendance of 1,100 in his first season to 11,000 in his 15th season, which ended in June.
He increased the number of performances from six to 16 a year over the same period while overseeing a budget that quadrupled from $50,000 to $200,000. The organization receives grants from the Community Foundation of Howard County, the county and state arts councils, PNC Foundation and Vantage House, among others.
Performances regularly attract more than 600 to the Jim Rouse Theatre and Performing Arts Center at Wilde Lake High School, which has a capacity of 730, making the topic of a building a larger performing arts venue an oft-revisited one.
The group formerly performed at the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College before outgrowing that site's 424 seats.
Those who know Love say the conductor is the driving force behind the orchestra's continuing growth.
Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council, used Love last month when she joined a throng of county agencies requesting budget dollars from Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and the County Council.
"I testified for a short while, but then I introduced Jason and he played his cello for the remaining two minutes" of her allotted time, West said. "Everyone thought it was an amazing way to drive home what we [as a granting organization] are supporting.
"Jason is charismatic, young and dedicated, and he challenges the musicians to be the best they can be. We use the Columbia Orchestra as a model organization because they've done everything right."
Becoming a musician
Love lives in Anne Arundel County in a guest house far enough removed from neighbors that he can practice his cello or play electric guitar whenever he wants.
He grew up in the small town of Burlington, N.C. His world changed when, around age 14, he heard the North Carolina Symphony play, and he quickly "plowed his way" through the local library's collection of classical recordings.
"The musicians looked very dashing in their tuxedos, and I was so excited by the music and the enthusiasm of the conductor," recalled Love, who wears a white tie and tails at the podium.
Love eventually came to Baltimore to attend the Peabody Conservatory where, after consistently ranking as the top student cellist in North Carolina, he had an epiphany.
Upon hearing the school's top musicians perform, "I realized, 'Oh, I stink, and I've got a lot of catching up to do,' " he said.
Love had earlier considered becoming a physicist, though he says he wasn't smart enough. He also mulled being an actor, though he says he didn't have enough stage presence.
That left music, for which he had talent — and an unusual look: His head of curly hair dramatically turned gray by the time he was 30.
Devoting 60 percent of his time to conducting and 40 percent to performing and teaching, Love is nothing if not serious about his musical goals.
Yet he and his parents and two older sisters loved to laugh together when he was growing up, and he has woven that family legacy into his life by listening to stand-up comedians on satellite radio and through his occasional unpredictability at the podium.
He has surprised orchestra members at symphonic pops concerts by dressing as Professor Dumbledore for a performance of music from "Harry Potter" films, and as a Klingon and Darth Vader for "Star Wars"- and "Star Trek"-themed concerts, among other costumes.
Love knows the Columbia Orchestra is the main avenue to hearing classical music for most of its audience members, in part because of its convenient access, frequent family-oriented programming and subsidized ticket prices, which cover only a third of the orchestra's expenses.
"We exist to show you great works of art, but we balance that with finding the next masterpieces," Love said.
One of those offerings was a piece composed by Christopher Rouse, a cousin of Jim Rouse who won a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his Trombone Concerto.
"It is a most virtuosic piece and an aesthetically challenging piece, but it went over well," Love said, noting the well-known preference of many audiences for the familiar.
"We're not always playing easy pieces to sell; we're asking our audience to keep growing with us."
'The critical part'
Love said the area's concentration of phenomenal musicians translates to orchestra members' ability to rise to any challenge he sets before them.
That's a point shared by Jonathan Carney, concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the last 13 years. Carney, a violinist who's known Love for 25 years, said the concept of an all-volunteer orchestra works well in Columbia because there are a large number of scientists and doctors living in the area who "tended to play a musical instrument to a fairly high level in high school and college."
"These types of professionals tend to do well in music, largely because they are perfectionists and music is all about that," Carney said.
In turn, that level of musicianship is what attracted someone of Love's caliber to be the orchestra's conductor, Carney said.
"Jason is also a perfectionist who is highly trained and a fantastic conductor who understands the technical, musical and psychological needs of an orchestra," he said.
"He's spontaneous, intuitive and a master of situations that are constantly in flux. When Jason asks me to play I say, 'Yes.' I'd be happy to work with him on a weekly basis."
Asked where he sees himself in five years, Love says he'd be "perfectly thrilled" to have the same job.
"I find there are lots of opportunities here to grow and to forge new musical journeys," he said.
"Columbia was a big experiment, and Howard County can be quite experimental. Keeping fresh eyes on what we're doing will be the critical part."
•Young People's Concerts will be held at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Feb. 21, also at the Jim Rouse Theatre. Dance Connections will join the orchestra with Greg Jukes as narrator. General admission tickets for ages 11 and under are free; $15 for ages 12 and up. In between the concerts there will be a free musical instrument "petting zoo" for children to try out instruments.
To purchase tickets for either event, call 410-465-8777 or go to columbiaorchestra.org.
If you go
Two Columbia Orchestra events are coming up: