Silicon Valley Really Is Having More Fun Playing Music in Community Orchestras

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The Nova Vista Symphony is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It's one of more than 60 adult amateur orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Courtesy of Ivory Sky Media)

pARTicipate-button-400x400 On nights when many of us are watching TV on the couch, hundreds of amateur musicians are showing up at churches and rec rooms to participate in community orchestras.  Why? For the love of it, says George Yefchak, a member of the Nova Vista Symphony, one of the oldest amateur orchestras in Silicon Valley. The orchestra is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

"I think we have way more fun than people who do it because it’s their job," says Yefchak, who works as a research scientist and programmer for Agilent Technologies, a maker of scientific instruments, by day. By night, he's a musical jack-of-all-trades, filling a wide variety of roles for orchestras all over the Bay Area. For Nova Vista, Yefchak's an oboist, board member, and occasional rehearsal conductor.

Yefchak is part of a vibrant scene that compels thousands of passionate musicians to dedicate most of their free time to rehearsals in churches and multi-purpose rooms rented on the cheap from local schools.

In truth, the terms "amateur" and "professional" as they're generally understood today don't really describe this world effectively. There's a spectrum of talent that runs between those two points. And while many of the musicians who play for Nova Vista, like Yefchak, do have full-time jobs that are not music-related, they take their hobby seriously.


"Nobody’s paid, except for me and the concert master and a few professionals we once in awhile bring in," says Nova Vista music director, Anthony Quartuccio. "But everybody here treats this like a professional orchestra. There's a very high standard of preparation. There's a high standard for the way we run board meetings and our financials, and the way we go into the community. So it's a professionally run orchestra by people who do it for the love of it."

Keeping musicians challenged and coffers filled

On a recent evening at Lakewood Elementary School in Sunnyvale, many Nova Vista musicians arrived at rehearsal directly from work, wearing nurses scrubs, or jackets emblazoned with tech company logos.

These are people who love a challenge, and Quartuccio is happy to oblige. "Every season, we pick a piece or two that will be a rite of passage, which is something we’re not sure we can do, but we’re going to take it on anyway," Quartuccio says. This season's big musical challenge comes in the form of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, one of the 19th century Russian composer's most well-known pieces. Though perhaps not as difficult to perform as Tchaikovsky's famously unplayable Violin Concerto in D Major, the masterwork isn't exactly a breeze either.

Even without the heavy overhead professional orchestras labor under, many amateur orchestras struggle for money. "Artistic expenses aside, it still costs money to put on a show," says Kris Sinclair, executive director of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. "And those ticket prices, if they charge admission, will be much lower than at a professional orchestra."

Nova Vista typically charges $15 a ticket. Even so, the organization's board members say money is not a problem. Nova Vista has an annual budget of $50,000. It doesn’t charge musicians annual dues, but they do donate and fund raise. "Everybody here treats this like a professional orchestra, sheerly for the love of it," Quartuccio says.

Plus, this being Silicon Valley, there’s no shortage of corporate donors, including Google, NVIDIA, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Apple, Texas Instruments, VMWare and Cisco Systems. Firms often get behind local orchestras in part because their own employees play in them.

Finding community...and love

Many musicians join these orchestras as a way to find community. Software engineer and cellist Harris Karsch came out from the East Coast to work at Google about a year and a half ago. "I just love playing with an ensemble," Karsch says. "It also keeps me practicing."

Playing cello as an undergrad at Cornell, Karsch similarly found music a great way to integrate into the student body­­. "A lot of my best friends were from orchestra, not from my classes," Karsch says. "Not the ones I ended up with in the dorms and living with but from orchestra and music."

That's proved true for many amateur musicians, some of whom date and even  marry each other.  Carl and Eva Ching of Sunnyvale met sitting next to each other at an orchestra rehearsal one night.

"I guess we took a liking to each other," says Carl. "And so we’ve been married, I guess, 35 years."

Eva's family is full of musicians. Carl's, not so much. For the past 25 years, Nova Vista has effectively been the couple's third family; it's a group where the Chings feel at home.

That, and they get to geek out performing some of classical music's greatest hits. Last year, Quartuccio's "rite of passage" piece was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "It’s been on our bucket list for years," Eva says. "Both of us were sitting there in the middle of the second violin section during the concert, going 'I can’t believe we’re playing this. Listen to how beautiful it sounds.' And it just makes so much difference to share it with someone who enjoys it as much as you do."

Sharing the music

Nova Vista often shares its performances with local students, professionals and musical organizations. Here are a few moments from a rehearsal of John Rutter's Gloria with Nova Vista Symphony and the San Jose Symphonic Choir conducted by Leroy Kromm. (Courtesy George Yefchak.)

Many of the people in Nova Vista are so deep into making music that they find the time to play for more than one orchestra. This phenomenon is quite common, according to Michael Zwiebach, senior editor of the online classical music journal San Francisco Classical Voice. "Every church, every temple has a choir, right?" Zweibach says. "There are tons of musicians out there and they’re all looking for something to do."

"We all know people within our own families who’ve been great musicians," regardless of whether they're pro, says Michael Zwiebach of San Francisco Classical Voice. Here's his great aunt, Birdie Engle, playing the piano on her 90th birthday. She sang at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1910s, before she got married.
"We all know people within our own families who’ve been great musicians," regardless of whether they're pro, says Michael Zwiebach of San Francisco Classical Voice. Here's his great aunt, Birdie Engle, playing the piano on her 90th birthday. She sang at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1910s, before she got married. (Courtesy of Michael Zwiebach)

By Zwiebach's estimation, the San Francisco Bay Area alone is home to more than 60 community orchestras, like the Redwood Symphony, the Peninsula Symphony, and the South Bay Philharmonic (originally the Hewlett-Packard Symphony Orchestra). 

Is the Bay Area typical for density of community orchestras?It's impossible to tell. There's nobody keeping a running tally. Celeste Wroblewski of the League of American Orchestras explains that definitions of community orchestras vary, making such a task nigh on impossible. What she can say is that of 1,224 orchestras in the US, 845 run on annual budgets of less than $300,000.

Zwiebach says he’s heard fabulous music from all sorts of ensembles, large and small, semi-professional, and nowhere near it. And how does he feel about the prevailing pejorative attitude about amateurs? "That’s something that we really have to get over," Zwiebach says. "That’s something that is built into an industrial society where professionalization and specialization is everything."


The Nova Vista Symphony performs Elmahmoudi, Grieg, Sarasate and Ravel at the De Anza Visual and  Performing Arts Center on April 23. More information here.