By Simon Hopkins
It’s a Tuesday evening in late October and over 30 local musicians are sitting in a semicircle in the basement of Parkdale United Church. They are rehearsing for what will be a top notch professional performance.
The 70-year-old Parkdale United Church Orchestra is bouncing back after shutting down for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. To bring in new blood, last year they hired conductor John Kraus who has over 25 years of experience leading musical groups.
Entering his second year as head of the orchestra, Kraus is reflecting back on his success last season, where, with baton in hand, he conducted three sold out performances.
This year the orchestra is growing, perhaps because of Kraus’ passion and enthusiasm.
“The most exciting element has been the addition of new players. There was a huge interest in joining,” said Kraus. “We’ve added seven violin players.”
In his first “honeymoon” year, Kraus tested the group with a couple of challenging acts.
During his first performance of ‘A Night at the Movies’ last November, the orchestra performed classical music from famous films like Lord of the Rings, Les Misérables and 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others.
This year more difficult acts, some rarely played, will make up the 2023-2024 season. While typically performed by more mainstream, professional orchestras, Kraus is feeling confident that his musicians — both new and old — are up for the task.
“This year’s program is a lot of different music and a lot of different styles with the difficulty ramped up, so at each concert, there’s something that will make everyone work a little harder.”
The season will launch with a mid-November ‘Remembrance’ concert on Nov. 12. According to its website, the Parkdale United Church Orchestra will honour and remember what is past and what is lost. In recognition of Remembrance Day, any concertgoers in uniform will receive free admission.
“We’re doing a Brahms symphony, Strauss, and a piece by a local performer,” said Anne-Marie Legault, a new violin player in the orchestra.
On Dec. 9, the orchestra will put on a Christmas concert, which hasn’t been a regular part of the orchestra’s season. According to Kraus, the group is excited to put on a program of new and familiar songs.
“We’re going to have three sleigh rides, and they’re all different, but they’re all beautiful,” he said, noting it will be “a lighter show.”
There will be Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, known by everyone, in addition to sleigh ride pieces by Mozart and Delius. The orchestra is also partnering with the Parkdale United Church Choir for the festive occasion, and is encouraging attendees to “warm up your singing voice for some caroling.”
In February, ‘POpera’ will be presented on the 10th, showcasing an all-star cast of Ottawa opera performers. Favourites will include The Barber of Seville, Il Trovatore, and many more.
“All the big names in opera will be there — Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, Bizet — and the concert will also feature selections from The Lion Heart, a new Canadian composition by guest performers Corey Arnold and Kyle MacDonald,” the Parkdale Orchestra website read.
The season will wrap up with ‘From the East of Europe’ on May 4, where the evening will include stops in Hungary with Kodály’s Háry János Suite, Romania for Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, and finish off in the Czech Republic with Dvořák’s epic Symphony No.8.
These concerts will be the first with this group for many, but for a few young musicians, this will be their first-ever orchestra concert.
“The influx of new players this year are on the younger half of the spectrum,” said Kraus.
Twelve-year-old Edwin de Jong joined the cello section this year.
His ties with the community orchestra run deep. His parents Nathalie van Galen and Yvo de Jong, alongside his brother 17-year-old Thomas de Jong, are also members.
“I’ve been playing for almost eight years, but I joined the orchestra in September,” Edwin said. “I’ve enjoyed joining the group, I’ve been looking forward to it for my entire life.”
He focused intently during the rehearsal, playing with the intensity of a seasoned pro.
“I’ve never been in a group so massive. I’m embracing the sense of unity,” he said. “You’re less important than in small groups. If you make a mistake, no one will care.”
This season is set to be an exciting one as the group continues their post-COVID growth. Kraus said there is even a waitlist to join the orchestra.
Their fall concert featuring Soprano Susan Elizabeth Brown will be Nov. 12 at 3 p.m. Attendees can buy tickets for the show on the Parkdale Orchestra’s website. They range in price from $15 to $20 in advance, or between $20 and $25 at the door. Those 18 years of age and under can listen for free.
With files by Zenith Wolfe.