February 24, 2024
How local orchestra volunteers bring new life to music and communities

Listen to the stories of volunteer musicians in community orchestras throughout the metro Denver region.

On a cold January night in a Wheat Ridge church, a large group of people traveled back in time to the 1800s — not by using new technology, but rather musical instruments.

A community orchestra performing in a church. There is a large cross that stands on a wall behind the orchestra.A community orchestra in Jefferson County, called the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra, held a rehearsal on Jan. 8, 2024, at the Wheat Ridge United Methodist Church. Credit: By Tayler Shaw

Brows furrowed and fingers fluttered as the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra, made up of roughly 70 volunteer musicians, performed a composition from an 1800s opera, “Carmen.” 

The community orchestra is one of many in the metro Denver region that offer people an opportunity to bring their musical talents and passions to life regardless of their profession, age or background.   

Despite the time and work it takes to execute exceptional performances, volunteer musicians throughout the metro region say the effort is worth it, highlighting the value of music for themselves and their communities. 

Chris Loring, principal violist of the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra, said the orchestra brings together people who share the same passion that they’ve all had since first picking up their instruments. 

“And now, here we are. We have this talent that we can share with each other, and that’s really fulfilling just to put it all together and be artistic and have fun,” she said. “It’s a great sense of community.”

A close-up of a string instrument that is in front of a music stand.A musician in the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra plays their string instrument during a Jan. 8, 2024, rehearsal. Credit: By Tayler Shaw

In the southern metro region of Denver, the Littleton Symphony Orchestra shares a similar goal of upholding community, said Bill Mesa, an assistant principal percussionist in the symphony. 

“With any community orchestra, they want to be a part of the community,” Mesa said. “Not just in it.”

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Compared to an organization like the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra, which dates back to the 1950s, a relatively newer community orchestra in the metro region is the Lone Tree Symphony Orchestra, founded in 2000. 

Katie Smith, principal oboe of the Lone Tree symphony, underlined the importance of having an orchestra in any community, whether it be Jefferson County, Littleton or Lone Tree.

“Having arts organizations provides a more well-rounded community as a whole,” Smith said. “It creates a more pleasant community to live in when you have more opportunities for the arts.”  

A conductor leading a community orchestra.Conductor Arturo González leads the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra during its rehearsal on Jan. 8, 2024. Credit: By Tayler Shaw

The start of lifelong musical careers

For both Loring and Smith, their musical careers started at a young age with playing the piano. 

An image of young people holding violas.An image from 1998 of Chris Loring with her youth orchestra’s viola section. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Loring

Loring, a 42-year-old pet photographer and private music teacher who lives in Jefferson County, said that in sixth grade, she joined the student orchestra. 

Out of the roughly 25 students there, no one had signed up to play viola, a string instrument that is slightly larger than a violin and has a deeper sound. The teacher asked who in the room wanted to play viola, leading to an awkward silence, Loring recalled. 

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“This cute boy next to me grabbed my hand, raised it up in the air, and the rest is history,” she said. “From that point forward, I really fell in love with the instrument.”

She went on to the University of Northern Colorado and studied viola performance, and today, she helps teach young musicians. 

“I love teaching for a couple of reasons. No. 1, I can have a hand in developing musicians that are going to come behind me,” Loring said. “These orchestras don’t fill up unless we have students that are learning and growing and developing a passion for something that some people might consider dorky or weird — but these kids are really, really excited about it.” 

Smith, a 50-year-old Highlands Ranch resident who does project work with Cigna Healthcare as her day job, said her mom was a church musician. 

“She started me on piano at 5 (years old) and then I apparently kept asking … what instrument I should play if I wanted to play in church,” Smith said. “She said, ‘Please play the oboe.’”

Musicians in a community orchestra performing.Musicians in the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra rehearsing on Jan. 8, 2024, at the Wheat Ridge United Methodist Church. Credit: By Tayler Shaw

Playing the oboe, a woodwind instrument, as a young child would have been a tall task, Smith said, so she initially started by playing the flute. By the end of fifth grade, however, she started the oboe. 

“I took to the oboe like a duck to water,” she said. 

Smith got her undergraduate degree in music from the University of Denver, she said. Although she had always intended to be a professional musician, when she got into college, she was encouraged to double major “so that I would at least have something to eat,” she said with a laugh.

She got a minor in business and realized she did not want to pursue a professional music career, she said. 

“I think since I don’t do it as my primary profession, I get more enjoyment out of it as an avocation than a vocation,” Smith said. 

For Mesa, a 57-year-old Centennial resident, his music career started as a young boy playing drums on coffee cans that his mom discarded, he said. He recalled listening to his dad’s vinyl records that featured lots of percussion, drawing him to the drums. 

“The clincher is when I first saw ‘Star Wars,’ and the music just blew me away,” Mesa said. “I thought, ‘Wow. Hear all those drums.’”

Eventually, he picked up drums through public schooling and performed through college. However, he did not major in music performance. 

Rather, he found an interest in accounting and is now an accounting professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Highlighting the ability of community orchestras to connect people, he said some of his former students will attend the Littleton Symphony Orchestra’s concerts and come up to him afterward to catch up.

“Those are all community factors. There doesn’t have to be anonymity,” he said about local performances. 

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Discovering community orchestras 

From seeing an advertisement to getting a phone call about an opening, the process of getting involved in a community orchestra can look different for everyone. 

A headshot of a woman.Chris Loring, the principal violist of the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Loring

Loring said she first learned about the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra when she moved to Golden around 2008, saying she saw an advertisement for it. She had been looking for an orchestra to join and had heard great things about it, she said. 

“It’s been around for decades, and many of the people who play in this orchestra have been here for decades,” she said. “When I joined, this was known as one of … the premier orchestras in terms of community orchestras for this area.”

The orchestra, which musicians have to audition to get into, is made up of roughly 70 people ranging from college-age to post-retirement age, she said. 

“It’s a really great orchestra full of some insanely talented musicians. We have played repertoire that you hear from the professional symphony,” she said. 

A man wearing glasses and holding up his hand.Arturo González, music director and conductor of the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra, giving directions to musicians on Jan. 8, 2024, at the Wheat Ridge United Methodist Church. Credit: By Tayler Shaw

Smith got involved in the Lone Tree Symphony Orchestra around 2006 after hearing about it through a friend. When she started playing with the orchestra, they performed in a church, she recalled. Now, they perform in the Lone Tree Arts Center, which she said is an amazing opportunity that not every community orchestra has.

She estimated roughly 60 musicians are in the orchestra, which requires an audition to join.

“We provide excellent entertainment for the community and it’s done in a manner where it isn’t haughty,” she said. “It’s presented in a way that people really feel encouraged to go and I think they really enjoy the opportunity and they enjoy the performance.”

Smith described making music with others in the symphony as both beautiful and challenging, especially if the musicians have different skill sets. 

“You have to be patient,” she said. 

Music stands holding music that are placed near string musicians.Music stands were placed throughout the Wheat Ridge United Methodist Church as the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra rehearsed on Jan. 8, 2024. Credit: By Tayler Shaw

Mesa got connected to the Littleton Symphony Orchestra when he got a phone call from the then-principal percussionist asking if he would be interested in filling in because the orchestra needed an extra person. Some time afterward, Mesa auditioned and became a regular member of the symphony about 17 years ago.

“It challenged me more. It upped my game and playing because the players in the orchestra are remarkable, high caliber,” he said. “You can get some exceptional performances from the community orchestras in the Denver metro area that you live by, and you’re supporting the community.” 

The vision of the Littleton Symphony Orchestra, which is made up of about 50 musicians ranging in age from early 20s to upper 70s, is to provide performances that elevate the human spirit, Mesa said. 

“We pursue that relentlessly, knowing it’s something we’ll never accomplish,” he said. “That’s what drew me into the orchestra.” 

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A group of violinists performing.Violinists in the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra rehearsing on Jan. 8, 2024. Credit: By Tayler Shaw

The value of music and community 

Although volunteering in the symphony orchestra requires hours of practice and rehearsal, one of the most rewarding factors is making music with friends, Mesa said. 

“There’s nothing quite like that type of effort when you have this number of people and when (a) performance pops and it sparks. And you can feel that from the audience because there is some communication between the orchestra and the audience,” he said. “It’s the best. You can’t replace it.”

Community orchestras are valuable because they provide a music outlet for residents who may not have the budget to pay the higher-priced tickets to see a professional orchestra, Mesa said. 

“Just give the orchestra a chance,” he said. “It’s fun, and it’s live music … something we’re, I think, missing nowadays.” 

Smith said the Lone Tree Symphony Orchestra is fortunate because it has had the support of the city since the very beginning. Similar to Mesa, Smith said being a part of any orchestra is a unique, special experience. 

“I think the most rewarding part of any performance is knowing that you’ve provided not only (an) escape in what you’re doing and what you’re creating — you’re also creating an experience for somebody else,” Smith said. 

“I think the most important thing for folks to know is that we’re here,” she added. “You don’t necessarily have to go downtown to hear the symphony.”

A large community orchestra.The Jefferson Symphony Orchestra is made up of roughly 70 volunteer musicians. The orchestra rehearsed at the Wheat Ridge United Methodist Church on Jan. 8, 2024. Credit: By Tayler Shaw

The most challenging part about being in a community orchestra is that the volunteer musicians have busy lives, Loring said. Yet, the time and effort is worth it.

“As a musician, the thing that I love about working in a group like this and performing is that this is the only way we get to bring to life some of the art that’s been given to this world,” Loring said. “With classical music, we have composers who wrote these incredible manuscripts, and they wrote these ideas and these concepts and these stories in notes. 

“And it’s up to us to translate that, and to create a story and to tell that through our music using our talents. And that, to me, is the coolest part,” she added. 

Community orchestras are important to the local community for a number of reasons, Loring said. One of them is that the orchestras provide activities for residents to enjoy. Another is the opportunity the orchestra provides to the volunteers, giving musicians a chance to continue to play their instrument when maybe they otherwise would not have. 

“How many people stop playing because they don’t have those opportunities?” Loring said. “Orchestras, like the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra, give that to people. And that’s really, really important for the community.”