Volume 13, Issue 36 ~ September 9 - 14, 2005
Passion and Pianissimo
Londontowne Symphony Orchestra is no amateur community band
by Carrie Steele

Violins, flutes and trumpets each play their own tunes. Highschoolers to gray-hairs, musicians dress in sandals, flip-flops, shorts, T-shirts and polo shirts. Having pushed aside the wooden pews, the 40-piece Londontowne Symphony Orchestra squeezes into the sanctuary of Cape St. Claire United Methodist Church.

Then conductor Julien Benichou strides up to the podium, a four-by-four square riser supporting a swivel stool. As if taking his throne, the posture-perfect maestro perches atop and lifts his baton.

In that instant, the melodic chaos of each instrument’s wake-up call falls silent.

The Birth of an Orchestra
Rehearsal begins with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, as the voices of the bass, cellos, flute and French horn rise in harmony to mingle with strings. Soon the full orchestra sings.

Benichou stops the music.

The path to musical perfection requires more than a few stops along the way.

“It’s just a little bit stiff,” the French-born Juilliard conductor says to the violinists to his left. “Think salsa, where you wiggle your hips.” He stands up to demonstrate, evoking soft laughter from players.

Southern Anne Arundel County’s orchestra is growing as big as the vision of music teacher Kathy Solano.

Before Londontowne Symphony Orchestra became a non-profit in 2003, “we’d basically been playing chamber music at my house,” said Solano, of Severna Park. Then to help out a pianist at Catholic University, they brought in musical friends.

“With more and more people playing in my house, we were trying to see if we could get an orchestra together,” Solano said.

Cellist Gabriel Di Marco, of Dunkirk, wasn’t convinced it would ever happen.

“I never thought it would become anything,” he said. “All of the sudden, people started showing up.”

The ensemble outgrew first Solano’s living room, then the fellowship hall of a church in Severna Park. Now they rehearse in Cape St. Claire United Methodist Church and perform at Southern High School. Their name is not geographic but historic, recalling London Town’s days as a port of crossing between Southern Maryland and Annapolis.

Solano is in awe of the symphony she’s nurturing.

“I think we’re probably completely nuts doing this, and then magic happens,” she says.

Ripening a Symphony
It wasn’t always smooth sailing.

“The very first concert, I thought the conductor was going to quit,” Solano said. “We had this French horn section; none of them could transpose. They would all come in and play the first couple of parts. Then when we got to the hard part, they all disappeared.”

Nowadays, Solano’s brass section knows how to play their horns.

“It takes most orchestras years and years to reach this level,” says Marcia Diehl of Annapolis, a clarinetist who’s played in the U.S. Naval Academy Band for 14 years. “I like the spirit of the orchestra. We want to be as good as possible as quickly as possible.”

Conductor and featured soloists change with every concert. Three years ago, they tried out a student conductor from Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

“But we really needed more experience up on the podium to do the level of quality work we needed and the repertoire we do,” Solano said. “Our conductors and soloists really have to be of the highest caliber.” Big musicians get a small honorarium from the all-volunteer orchestra. “Embarrassingly small,” added Solano. But still they come.

For their third season opener, Julien Benichou takes the podium.

Benichou was recently named conductor of the Pre-College Chamber Orchestra at Manhattan’s prestigious Juilliard School. But he lives in Catonsville. Locally, he also conducts the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra and is assistant conductor of the Johns Hopkins Symphony Orchestra in Baltimore.

His musical critique is just what Londontowne craves.

Halfway through the Brahms piece, Benichou isn’t quite satisfied with the strings’ phrasing.

“It really feels like shaving cream when you play legato,” he says, running the back of his hand down his jawbone, before queuing the orchestra to back up and replay a section.

Now he’s satisfied as he nods, conducting on, rising from the stool to raise more feeling and stronger voices in the musical climax.

Brewing Musical Blends
There’s legato among the musicians, too.

“There’s a connection that we feel with each other,” says Carolyn Sonnen of Cape St. Claire, who has played flute in the orchestra since the last concert of the first season. We have to be attuned musically — that’s the 440 vibrations per second of the oboe — but we’re attuned on different levels as well. People’s heart rates and respirations are in sync.”

Not just anyone can play in this 40-volunteer orchestra. They have to be the right people.

Solano seeks her musicians by word of mouth recommendations and trial-by-fire substitutions during rehearsals.

Many are called, but few are chosen. Solano tracked down the phone number of a talented viola player, only to find that the number led to an Eastern Shore penitentiary. She reached him there, only to find out he’d not be playing Londontowne any time soon. She still laments that one that got away.

Players in the musical mix include, she says, “all walks of life: everything from tax advisors to a government weatherman.” Also playing are over a dozen music teachers.

“There’s such as sense that people are doing this out of the love for music,” Sonnen says.

“We’re not your usual community orchestra. You have to have quite a bit of skill to do the kind of music we’re doing,” adds Scott Holbert, a retired trumpet player from Hanover, who spent 30 years playing for military bands, including 24 years in the Army Field Band.

So ambitious is the orchestra that they’re tackling Mahler’s Symphony, a massive piece. This one’s not for a concert, but just for fun: they’d asked themselves to name a piece they’d always wanted to play.

When the Mahler suggestion came up, says Sonnen, “we said yeah, let’s go for it.”

The Sound of Music
“It’s wonderful to be surrounded by sounds and wonders of this great music,” says Sonnen, who works as a music therapist by day. “I’m a believer in live vibration. Performing’s not just entertainment; there’s something more. It puts the audience in touch with their feelings. It’s an internal thing. Language and words often limits us.”

Londontowne is primarily a South County orchestra, they’ll tell you, seeking classical audiences among retired people and those who can’t afford high ticket prices of bigger orchestras, as well as classical music lovers from all walks of life.

For their season opener September 16, they have four pieces lined up.

First is Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, which was written in the spring of 1749 to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Secession, expressed here with pomp and pageantry.

Next, they move into the 20th century with Samuel Barber’s orchestral song, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which was inspired by Southern novelist James Agee’s writings. This reminiscence of a summer night spent with family features soprano Tracy Hall, who’s performed with opera and concert groups all over the D.C. metropolitan area and the Northeast.

Next is a Johannes Brahms’ 2nd Symphony, a pastoral piece in which you’ll recognize the first movement theme: the composer’s famous Lullaby.

You’ll leave with the rhythms of Sousa’s Washington Post March resounding in your mind.

“Music is such an expressive art,” says Sonnen. “Julien exudes this music. He transmits it to the people who are there.”

This symphony plays not only for audiences, but also for themselves. Getting absorbed in the music is their heaven.

“When you’re performing,” says Di Marco, “You forget about everything else.”

Londontowne Symphony Orchestra plays at 7:30pm Friday, September 16 at Southern High School Auditorium, 4400 Solomons Island Rd., Harwood. $15 donation: 410-266-8834; www.londontownesymphony.org. ($25 season tickets include three regular season concerts plus an open rehearsal of Mahler’s Symphony.)

Staff writer Carrie Steele did not practice her oboe enough to join this symphony.

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