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Musicians create in a congenial atmosphere

Cindy Hakala and Rachel Portinga concentrate while playing "In the Bleak Midwinter" in preparation for the Duluth Community Orchestra concert next week. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)1 / 3
Conductor Sam Marks leads the Duluth Community Orchestra in the third movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 at rehearsal. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)2 / 3
Flute players Anne Deignan and Megan Briski cap off this row of woodwind players in the Duluth Community Orchestra. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)3 / 3

A shoe salesman, a music teacher and a biology professor ... what do these three have in common? They share the love of playing music together and are members of the Duluth Community Orchestra.

"We have people from all walks of life in here. We have doctors, scientists, college professors. They're a unique group," said conductor Sam Marks.

On a wintry evening last week, the orchestra gathered for their final rehearsal before their winter concert, which will take place 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 13 at in the Lincoln Park Middle School, 3215 W 3rd St.

The Duluth Community Orchestra is a group of self described "congenial musicians in a no-pressure atmosphere." Skill levels among the group range from professional to beginner. The only requirements are an ability to sight read music, have your own instrument and play at a high school level.

"There are no auditions, which I love. That's part of what drew me in originally," said second violinist Dale DeRocher.

DeRocher works as a shoe salesman. He discovered the group about 15 years ago and he's played off and on ever since. He started to play violin in high school, though he says he never thought he'd use it.

"I never, ever, ever thought I'd play after high school. It was over 30 years since I'd played. But it's been so great coming back to it," DeRocher said. "It's now a place of friendship for me. We have so much fun playing together. It's the people that draw you back."

Music teacher Lianne Dombrowski agrees with DeRocher's sentiment. She started playing oboe with the orchestra about eight years ago.

"We work together as a team. No one gets upset with you if you mess up; instead we try to help one another," Dombrowski said. "So if there's a melody that violins have, but the flutes are confused, I can whisper, 'Listen to the violins, they have the same part a measure before you.'"

Dombrowski teaches woodwind instruments at Schmitt Music, so playing with the orchestra isn't much of a stretch from what she does for a living. But she said she enjoys the opportunity to play oboe solos.

"One of the songs we're playing for the next concert has a big oboe solo. Being the principal oboe, I get a ton of solos and that's fun," Dombrowski said.

One of the newest members of the orchestra is University of Wisconsin-Superior biology instructor Rachel Portinga. Portinga began playing French horn with the group last year after meeting Marks at the Duluth Community Band. She's been playing French horn since fifth grade, but said she didn't realize how much she enjoyed it until college.

"It took me until college to realize that I actually liked it and liked it well enough to put effort into finding a group," Portinga said. "I decided that I couldn't live without doing something musical. It's fun and it makes my brain think differently. It's nice to get a music fix for just two hours a week."

Portinga joined the orchestra not long after Marks took it over after Sam Black retired from directing the group two years ago. As a 40-year veteran of public school music education instruction, Marks has a lot of experience conducting. But he says he's never conducted a group quite like this before.

"It's a very supportive atmosphere. They all really seem to like playing together. I don't think I've ever been with a group with that kind of a feeling," Marks said. "They have to pay a fee to community ed to play, so clearly they all want to be here."

Because the group started in the 1980s as a strings-only orchestra, Marks said he likes to observe that tradition and play two pieces without accompaniment. For this concert, the string pieces will be two movements from Beethoven's Symphony No. 2. Later the other instruments will join in for "A Christmas Suite" arranged by Marks. The conductor said he'd had a hard time finding Christmas music available in the public domain, so he decided to arrange "I Saw Three Ships," "In the Bleak Midwinter," and "The Divine Christ Child."

There will be an encore performance at the Superior Public Library 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 20. Admission is free for both concerts.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

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