Columbia Orchestra looks forward to a rich program, starting with Beethoven Group will start its 15th season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Da da da dum -- da da da dum."

That's what concert-goers can look forward to when they attend the Columbia Orchestra's 15th season opening next Friday at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 dominates a bold program that includes the overture from an opera about love, lust and forgiveness, and a concerto by an American composer who uses overtones of Jewish mysticism to trace his Armenian heritage.

"The first concert will feature the familiar Beethoven's Fifth," said Cathy Ferguson, conductor and musical director, who tries to schedule a Beethoven concert at least once a season.

The opening piece will be the "Tannhauser Overture." Written by German composer Richard Wagner, "Tannhauser" is an opera about a German folk legend who sells his soul to Venus.

"He later decides that he wants to rejoin the mortal world to be with his former love," Ms. Ferguson explained.

"But the mortal world doesn't want to accept him because he lived in sin with Venus. The overture reflects the overtones of forgiveness Wagner was putting into his opera."

The final work is Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra, a haunting piece by American composer Alan Hovhaness.

"The piece reflects a lot of ideas he gained when he looked into his Armenian heritage," Ms. Ferguson said. "He was also intrigued with Jewish music. We find a lot of religious and mystical overtones in his music."

In addition to the opening program, the 70-member orchestra will present three concerts, plus a holiday and Tiny Tots concert, through June.

Ms. Ferguson, who is returning for her fourth year as conductor, may spend a month selecting the program.

"I think about what would be a challenge," said the Towson resident.

"I look for what they could be successful with, pieces that are not too easy and not too challenging, ones that will fit the group. And pieces they learn to love and appreciate and enjoy."

A Colorado native, Ms. Ferguson, 34, has two master's degrees in violin and conducting from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.

The tireless educator teaches chamber music and private violin and viola classes at HCC; teaches music appreciation and conducts a chamber choir at Essex Community College; conducts the "Canticle Singers" in Towson; teaches strings and a conducting class at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, where she conducts a college orchestra; and runs a private violin studio in Lancaster, Pa.

Columbia Orchestra rehearsals, which begin around Labor Day, are held on Monday evenings at Oakland Mills Middle School in Columbia before breaking in June for the summer.

At least seven members have been part of the company since it began as a chamber orchestra 15 years ago.

But auditions, which are held in late August, still attract new members.

Stan Kusnetz, 52, of Columbia, joined last year. "It's really a joy," said the commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service. "It's the high point of my week."

Although Mr. Kusnetz studied the French horn as a youngster -- LTC attending the High School of Music and Art in New York -- he laid down his horn when he put on a uniform 25 years ago.

He decided to pick it up again after reading an orchestra $H audition notice in the newspaper.

"I wasn't good, but, miraculously, they took me," he said. "They said they would give me a chance. That gave me the motivation to get back where I [was]. Now I am one-third as good as I used to be. And I used to be quite good."

Membership spans the ages; the youngest performer is 12-year-old Christopher Hemerlein of Columbia. The seventh-grader at Wilde Lake Middle School is the orchestra's ,, second violinist.

Chris joined the group after competing and winning, in his category, the orchestra's annual Young Artist Competition two years in a row.

Winners later perform with the orchestra in a concert showcasing their talents. Enthralled, Chris decided to sign up.

"It was a lot of fun," said the youngster, who has studied the violin since the age of 4 1/2 . "It wasn't like a school orchestra. Everybody here knows how to sight-read.

"I just like it that we sound real good. It's more challenging than at school. There is more detailed, intricate playing -- more sounds are involved. I like it better than just playing with a piano."

Nor does the young virtuoso feel intimidated by his older and more experienced colleagues.

"It's a little funny with adults, but it's not that big a deal," he said. "I'm having fun."

The company is also the orchestra-in-residence at Howard Community College, offering four educational outreach programs per year, allowing HCC students to earn credit while performing with the orchestra.

The group also began an annual fund-raiser two years ago. Last March's "Afternoon in Venice" offered Italian food, strolling violinists and chamber music.

This season, the company will present a "Happy 15th Year Columbia Orchestra Birthday Party" in April.

But the perennial highlight is the December Holiday Concert. This season's program includes a mix of winter music, including waltzes, excerpts from "The Nutcracker" ballet, the "Prelude to Hansel and Gretel" and a student chorus.

The January concert will feature concert mistress Brenda Anna, lead violinist, performing solo in Bruch's Violin Concerto, and a performance of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7. "It's a wonderfully romantic symphony," Ms. Ferguson said.

The Tiny Tots concert in March will showcase the Peabody Children's Chorus performing "Chesapeake Suite," a piece about the Chesapeake Bay written by Tom Benjamin.

There will also be a performance of "Peter and the Wolf" with a narration by Jonathan Palevsky, program manager and announcer for classic music radio station WBJC.

The final concert, in June, will feature a performance of Sibelius' Symphony No. 1.

The composition by Jean Sibelius, who wrote about his native Finland, features "a lot of the bleak and cold nature of the Finland landscape," said Ms. Ferguson.

"There's a lot of dark, brooding sounds; it's a soul-searching piece. And it's always a favorite of audiences."

Although the symphony is "not typical for an amateur piece, it will be a challenge," she added.

"It takes a lot of musical sensitivity from the players -- they have to be very expressive. Beethoven is fairly easy to get out to the audience. But the players have proven to me they're up to the challenge."

COLUMBIA ORCHESTRA SCHEDULE

Oct. 22: 8 p.m. at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre: Wagner's "Tannhauser Overture," Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and Hovhaness' Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra.

Dec. 11: 8 p.m. at Mount Hebron High School: Holiday Concert featuring Humperdinck's "Prelude to Hansel and Gretel," selections from "The Nutcracker," the Howard County Elementary School Chorus and a variety of favorite holiday songs.

Jan. 29: 8 p.m. at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre: Violinist Brenda Anna, will be the soloist in Bruch's Violin Concerto, and lead violinist in Beethoven's "Coriolan Overture" and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7.

March 5: 2 p.m. at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre: Winners of the Young Artist Competition, held Jan. 23, will be featured, accompanied by the orchestra. Orchestra to perform Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld."

March 19: 10 a.m. at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia: Tiny Tots Concert featuring "Peter and the Wolf," narrated by Jonathan Palevsky of WBJC radio, accompanied by ballet dancers from Linden Hall in Columbia. "Chesapeake Suite," by Tom Benjamin, will be performed by the Peabody Children's Chorus.

June 5: 7:30 p.m. at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre: Baritone Randall Woodfield will perform works by Mahler and Ravel. Orchestra to perform Sibelius' Symphony No. 1. Individual tickets for all concerts except Tiny Tots and Holiday concerts are $6 general admission; $5 for students and seniors; and $4 for children 12 and under. Holiday and Tiny Tots Concerts are $5; free for children 12 and under.

Information: 461-9194.

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