Drew Larson conducts 30 members of the Sitka Community Orchestra through an arrangement from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. (KCAW/Redick)

Sitka’s community orchestra is back in action after a nearly-three year break during the COVID-19 pandemic. As KCAW’s Meredith Redick reports, the intergenerational group is tackling everything from Sibelius to Mozart. 

It’s a Tuesday evening at Blatchley Middle School, and members of Sitka’s community orchestra are tuning their instruments for their second rehearsal as a group. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sitka had a robust community orchestra. Now, after a three-year hiatus, director Drew Larson is bringing musicians back together.

Right now, they’re warming up on a lively tune. “Nice accents and style on the eighth notes,” Larson says. “Nice full sforzandos is what we’re going for.”

The orchestra currently has about 30 members that range from sixth-graders to retirees, and even includes a few parent-child duos. Elizabeth Bagley and her 13-year-old son Ian sit next to each other in the brass section, and Melissa Bunney plays cello one section over from twelve-year-old Ruby Dunn, on trombone.

“I like the Thunder Mountain Waltz, or the Thunder and Lightning waltz, because I like the bass line,” Dunn says.

They’re about to launch into Dunn’s favorite tune – with another reminder from Larson to focus on dynamics.

“Every so often we get a sforzando right on beat 1 and we go ‘da, da, da, dum, da, da, da, dum,’” Larson says, clapping his hands to demonstrate.

Larson has been the Blatchley Middle School music teacher since 2019, and he directed Sitka’s community orchestra in 2020. 

Many of the musicians here are dusting off decades-old skills or experimenting with new instruments – like Ruby, who plays violin and triangle in addition to trombone. 

Beth Short-Rhoads is transferring her piano skills to the glockenspiel, or orchestral bells.  

“They’re a piano keyboard,” Short-Rhoads says of the percussion instrument, a set of tuned metal bars she strikes with a hammer. “It’s still really challenging, though, because it’s just a different movement with your hands and it’s a different instrument to learn. But it’s so amazing to be a part of this group, and I’m able to be a part of making music that otherwise would be too complicated for me. ”

Beyond the standard woodwind, strings, and brass sections, the orchestra has one unusual addition – the alto saxophone, played by 13-year-old Khalil McCormick. McCormick already has a favorite piece to play with the group. 

“I just started today, but out of the ones that I’ve gotten, I’m gonna have to say Largo,” McCormick says.

From left to right: Khalil Mccormick, Ruby Dunn, and Melissa Bunney smile during a break in Tuesday’s community orchestra rehearsal. (KCAW/Redick)

Largo is a movement from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Other pieces they’re working on include an excerpt from Sibelius’s “Finlandia” and an arrangement from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Director Larson has worked to make sure that the pieces are accessible for the whole group. 

“There’s a fine balance between making sure that the top players are engaged enough and pushing things musically, while you’re not leaving some of the newer players behind, which can be very frustrating for them,” Larson says. “So finding that balance of picking hard enough music and moving quick enough, while at the same time, making sure that no one’s left behind.”

After a short break — in which Larson prompts everyone to talk about their favorite ice cream with another musician –  they start on an arrangement from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It’s one of the more difficult pieces the orchestra is rehearsing.

Fortunately, the orchestra has some time to fine-tune their delivery. They perform for the first time in three years on March 10 at the Sitka Performing Arts Center. Rehearsals are on Tuesday evenings at Blatchley Middle School. Musicians interested in joining can contact Larson at delarson17@gmail.com.