Last night after six years at the helm, I conducted my final
program with the West Virginia University Community Arts Orchestra. The CAO is
a community outreach orchestra that services players of various abilities
ranging from talented youngsters to college age students, working pros who are
looking for an opportunity to perform serious literature and older players who
simply enjoy performing as a hobby. Regardless of their playing level they all
take the idea of performing very seriously, and it has been a privilege and
pleasure to work with them.
One of the real challenges for a conductor working with a
group like this is to program literature that balances the technical abilities
of more advanced players with the limitations of the less advanced. Last
night’s program included the Prince Igor Overture of Alexander Borodin,
an arrangement of the Schubert Marche Militaire, the first movement of
the Franck D minor Symphony, the rarely played Three Holy Kings March
from Franz Liszt’s Oratorio “Christus” and three movements from the Opus 10 Caucasian
Sketches of Ippolitov-Ivanov.
I have always admired the work of Andre Previn. I worked for
him on many occasions when he was Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony
Orchestra and think of him as an exceptionally perceptive musician. One of my
colleagues who worked for Previn while playing in the San Antonio orchestra many
years ago said that he admired most that Previn was able to recognize and
ignore problems that could not be solved and to work all the harder at problems
that could be dealt with. I think that this is one of the paramount abilities
that a conductor of an amateur orchestra must possess. When rehearsals can be
made productive without becoming stressful for the players a conductor can feel
a real sense of accomplishment.
Our recent program stretched the abilities of our fine
double reed section (Caucasian Overture), our brass section (Franck and Liszt)
and our winds overall in the Borodin, while allowing the strings a bit of a
breather in the Schubert and Ippolitov-Ivanov. If player as well as audience
reaction was any indication we succeeded in the primary goals of this sort of
program, which should be to please the audience, allow the players a sense of
genuine accomplishment and present the composer’s works as faithfully as our
My hope for this orchestra as well as for the many other
similar orchestras in this country is that they will continue to receive the
institutional and community support that they deserve. The many players who
devote individual practice and rehearsal hours to present programs of this sort
form the backbone of the cultural life of our local, regional and national arts
identity, and I hope that you join me in supporting them and wishing them many
years of great success.
John Ashton is a conductor, composer, former classical trumpet player, decent wine maker and mediocre sailor (recently wrecked his twenty-seven foot sloop). He still conducts the Fairmont University Community Orchestra and tends to his garden.