Columbia Orchestra provides thrill for players, entertainment for community Volunteer group plays for fun of it


Why would an engineer spend 12 years playing the violin in an orchestra and never have earned a nickel for his trouble?

The answer, Bruce Kuehne says, is: food for the soul.

"It's OK to practice on your own but the challenge of playing with other instruments isn't there. For me, that's part of the thrill of music," says Mr. Kuehne, an applied physics engineer who has played the violin since childhood.

He is a 12-year veteran of the Columbia Orchestra.

As he and other members of the 70-member wind-and-string ensemble attest, the spirit of comradeship in the orchestra also attracts members.

The nonprofit orchestra puts on four evening performances a year, usually at Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, and two special performances -- a holiday season concert and a children's concert.

The next concert -- the annual Tiny Tots Concert -- is scheduled for 10 a.m. Feb. 27. The free performance at Kahler Hall in the Village of Harper's Choice will feature the children's favorite "Peter and the Wolf."

While the performance will present a chance for the musicians to have fun, orchestra director Cathy Ferguson says her goal for most performances is to select music that "stretches the musicians professionally but does not go over their heads."

To that end, Ms. Ferguson, a former Colorado resident now in her third year at the orchestra helm, selects a range of music for the evening performances.

For example, for an evening concert last month, the varied program included Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," which portrays the mood of summer in the South and "A la Musique," a French composition featuring a soprano solo.

"I believe in providing a good show. I don't want to force a bad sound on our listeners," says Ms. Ferguson, a Towson resident. She is studying at the Peabody Conservatory and teaching violin and conducting in the music program at Essex Community College.

The Columbia Orchestra has been providing music locally since 1978 when it was founded by area musicians who wanted to play for the hometown crowd.

Elaine Newhall, president of the orchestra's board of directors and a flutist in the ensemble, says the orchestra provides a valuable contribution to the county's cultural scene.

Orchestra patrons have remarked to members that they prefer not to fight the traffic into Baltimore or Washington for a show.

"A community orchestra fills an important need for serious music lovers here," Ms. Newhall says.

When it was founded, the orchestra consisted of string players and was called the Columbia Chamber Orchestra. Twelve of the founding members, including Mr. Kuehne, still play with the orchestra, Ms. Newhall says.

"We try to serve musicians with a good vehicle to show their talent, have a good time and put on a good show. That's a hard balance to strike sometimes," she says.

The group practices every Monday night between Labor Day and June for about three hours at Harper's Choice Middle School.

Despite a bare-bones annual budget of about $14,000, the show goes on.

That money is raised through grants from organizations such as the Howard County Council on the Arts and the Columbia Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic group.

Donations and ticket sales also help.

The money pays for hall rentals for performances, concert advertising, moving expenses and the salaries of the director and the concert mistress (the lead violin player), Brenda Anna, a Greenbelt resident.

Everyone else plays on a volunteer basis.

The orchestra draws many musicians from the Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington areas, Ms. Newhall says.

While about 75 percent of the orchestra's musicians are Howard County residents, the rest are from Westminster, Severna Park, Baltimore and Silver Spring.

"We have more string players than we can handle so we now have a rotation for playing at concerts," Ms. Newhall says.

Orchestra members have varied backgrounds, from doctors and lawyers to stay-at-home parents and retirees.

While wind section players must audition for the orchestra, string players don't have to pass such muster.

Any string player, regardless of talent level, can join.

"We're not a high-pressure orchestra, like if you miss a note you're out, which is the way it is in some community orchestras," Ms. Newhall says.

The biggest challenge for the orchestra, says Ms. Ferguson, the director, is "pushing them to do better without making them feel miserable."

"I want everyone to have fun while we work hard," she says.

While playing music may be the prime focus of the orchestra, many members find there's another benefit.

"For some people, it's a way to express themselves musically. For others, it's more of a social thing," Mr. Kuehne says.

"A lot of people have developed friendships that go beyond rehearsals and performances. I know I do," he says. "The primary reason that seems to draw most people, though, is just to play."

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