Musical Season: The Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 50th anniversary with “Carmina Burana” | News, Sports, Jobs
HOUGHTON — In the opening minutes of rehearsal Tuesday, Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra conductor Joel Neves coaches musicians on the intricacies of the Rozsa Center.
“It’s a very danceable piece, so we have to have a lot of conciseness, sharpness and short, bouncy notes”, he said. “There are moves where we’re legato, but generally it’s very light and bouncy, and it will translate well in the room.”
Similar scenes have been going on for decades – before the Rozsa was built, and before all but one of the performers on stage were there.
The Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a performance of Carl Orff’s cantata “Carmine Burana” 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Rozsa Center. The massive room will be complemented by an equally huge roster of musicians. The 75 members of the KSO will be joined on stage by conScience: MichiganTech Chamber Singers, Michigan Tech Concert Choir, young local singers and three professional soloists: Karen Beacom (soprano), Marcus McConico (tenor) and Nathan Herfindahl (baritone).
“Carmine Burana” is composed of 24 satirical poems from the 11th and 12th centuries. Even if the audience hasn’t heard the piece, they will recognize the opening and closing number, “O Fortune”, which arose everywhere “The Hunt for Red October” for “Donkey.”
“It’s a very famous piece for choir and orchestra,” said Joel Neves, who became the orchestra’s seventh director in 2009. “Instantly recognizable tunes. Rowdy, fun, exhilarating, bombastic, naughty. It’s a big room.
As a sign of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, Saturday’s concert will also include a performance of the Ukrainian national anthem.
The orchestra is a “college-community hybrid”, Neves said: About half are tech students, while the other half are tech teachers, community members and music teachers.
“They are the creme de la creme of Keweenaw and UP and so they are very talented musicians and artists,” Neves said. “What is most satisfying is their spirit. They are simply wonderful human beings, and working with them every week is a real joy.
During Tuesday’s rehearsals, Neves recognized returning alumni, who were greeted by the sound of feet. One performer, Gene Purdum, was an original member of the orchestra. He graduated from Tech in 1975 with a degree in nuclear physics and then spent 30 years as a classical music manager for a public radio station in Lansing.
The oldest current member is clarinetist Debra Zei. She joined while an undergrad at Tech. She spent 35 years with the orchestra, some of which with her son, who was a member in high school and college.
“It was pretty cool for the family to play together” she says. “And now it has become such a way of life. After 35 years, it’s like, ‘It’s Tuesday night, it’s orchestra.’
One of Zei’s favorite memories was KSO’s previous performance of “Carmina Burana” who opened the Rozsa Center in 2000. When she joined, the KSO gave all its concerts at the Calumet Theater. They later moved to the McArdle Theater on the Tech campus, which “is smaller (than the Rozsa) and not as good sonically,” Zei said.
Other recent concerts have included religious music performances at St. Joseph’s Church in Lake Linden. The orchestra’s repertoire is varied: Copeland, Beethoven, multimedia works and premieres including pieces by former director Milt Olsson.
“Joel is really good at trying to change it for us so that even though we’ve been in the band for many years, there haven’t been a lot of songs that I’ve played more than once,” Zei said.
Leanna Rose, a third-year pre-med student who plays the viola, had initially exhausted herself in the orchestra after playing in numerous ensembles in high school. But when she got to college, she found she missed it. Her section at the KSO is a close-knit group, having had the same people for all three years, she said.
“I just like being able to have more of that little sense of community in my section, but also within the orchestra,” she says. “I decided to take private lessons last year, because I also got to know some people from different sections.”
Rose’s favorite moment with the orchestra was performing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
“It was one of those shows where I first thought, ‘I don’t know if we can make it'” she says. “But it was a very, very satisfying feeling to be able to put on a great performance for that one, and it’s definitely a performance that I will always remember.”
The oldest orchestra in the Upper Peninsula, the KSO has toured and made numerous recordings. It has also received national acclaim, most recently winning second place for Best Orchestral Performance by a Small College last year at the American Orchestral Performance Awards.
“We are very proud of this distinction, of being one of the best orchestras in the United States”, Neves said. “Not bad for a place that’s mostly made up of engineers and STEM people, but we’re able to combine our talents and create something special.”
Although the orchestra has continued to play during COVID — wearing masks, and initially only via livestream — this is the first major orchestral-choral concert at the Rozsa since the pandemic began, Neves said.
Tuesday’s rehearsal was the first to feature the choir. Thursday’s rehearsal will add the three soloists and 20 other alumni.
“We’re only together three times and then boom, we do the public performance,” Neves said. “It’s kind of hair-raising and exciting.”
Tickets are $19 for adults, $6 for youth, and free for MTU students (and one guest) with Experience Tech Fee. They are available at events.mtu.edu or (906) 487-1906. The concert will also be broadcast live.