The Arts and Community editor at the East Oregonian asked me if we could do a story on the recovery of my cello from the fire at the Oregon East Symphony offices. This is what I sent her.
My first thought was that the situation was too serious for anything resembling a “feel-good” story, but actually, I now think that the specifics of the story point to some important truths about what the organization called the “Oregon East Symphony” really is, what it stands for and why we need to make sure we come out of this stronger than ever.
The fact that my cello and one of my guitars were the only things that survived this fire intact has to be one of the best examples of karma, or reaping what you sow, that I’ve ever seen happen in real life. My cello and guitar were the only things that made it out of the office to the best of my knowledge. I bought the cello nearly four years ago because it had become too expensive and risky to travel with my main instrument. I needed an instrument that could live in Oregon which I could play on during my frequent visits. It’s not a rare or unique instrument, but one that has served me well. I had a luthier in Wisconsin who I’ve known since I started playing customize it for me, and it’s the instrument I’ve played all my recent Oregon performances on, including the Elgar Cello Concerto I did at the last concert.
Perhaps less expensive, but more valuable to me was the guitar, which I’ve had since I was 13. Many of your readers might know that I used to be a rock and jazz guitar player- it was a big part of my life for many years. When I moved to Cardiff to be with my wife a few years ago, I had to make tough choices about what to bring, and it all boiled down what was most urgently needed in building my life and career today. I couldn’t afford to be sentimental. Everything else has been stored in the OES office, and is now lost. Huge chunks of my life, things I’d written, things I’d composed, furniture that came down through the family, musical instruments, records, tons of books and virtually all the letters I’d gotten up the age of about 30, including things from friends and teachers and relatives who are no longer living, are now gone. Having the one guitar left will mean a lot- more, frankly, than the cello, as it is a link with that earlier epoch in my life.
My cello and guitar were rescued by Aurora Torres, our principal violist, and Lisa Robertson, our concertmaster. They were the only ones in the office when the fire reached it. Aurora studies violin and viola with Lisa and they were having a lesson in the OES teaching studio when the fire started.
I first met Aurora when we started the A-Sharp Players preparatory orchestra about 5 years ago. This was back when Cheryl Marier was our executive director, and she had come to me asking if I would be interested in starting a youth orchestra and conducting it. It was something that had been discussed when I first came to the orchestra and at that point I had said that I didn’t have the time to take it on, but this time I said yes. Aurora was one of the founding members of the orchestra, and I knew her as the rather quiet young girl in the back of the first violins. She was pretty-much self-taught at that point, and I was concerned about whether she would be able to cope with some of the music we were playing.
As that first year went on, she thrived where others faltered, and when I heard her second audition, I was blown away with the progress she had made without the help of a teacher. I did something I rarely do, which is that I went directly to Lisa and asked her to consider taking Aurora into her studio based on what I’d seen in her audition, and I went to Aurora‘s parents and asked them to pursue lessons with Lisa. I also told them that the orchestra would pay for her lessons, as they don’t have a lot of money.
It’s now several years later, and Aurora has matured from being the little kid in the back of the section of the youth orchestra to being a principal player in the OES itself. When Jason Thornton was in town to conduct our Elgar concert last month he was so impressed with her passion for music and her playing that he offered to arrange a scholarship for her to study in England this summer. Along the way, the orchestra has continued to provide lesson assistance, instruments, tuition waves, whatever it took. We’ve done that for a lot of kids, and it has always been worthwhile- she’s by no means the only talented and bright young person to come through our organization. She was just the one who was having a lesson when the building caught fire, and it was her and her teacher who grabbed my instruments.
Just think- if Cheryl hadn’t asked me a second time to start a youth orchestra, if I’d said no (when the A-sharps were started, I was only being paid exactly ¼ what I got for youth orchestra rehearsals in my old job in Ohio), it the orchestra hadn’t had the grant funding to pay for it, if we hadn’t had the funds to waive tuition fees for students who need the help, if we hadn’t had the teaching space at the office, if Lisa hadn’t been able to teach her because the orchestra couldn’t subsidize lessons, if Aurora didn’t have a violin to play on…. if any one of these things, all of which are central, everyday parts of what the orchestra does and what it stands for, if any of them hadn’t happened, then nothing would have come out of that building. I’m glad to have my instruments, but I’m even happier to be able to point to everything that has happened over the last six years that led to their rescue.
There are graduates of our youth programs who are playing in professional orchestras, there are graduates who are leading their university orchestras, there are graduates writing film scores in Hollywood. Pendleton is a place where a kid who is a first-generation American without family money to support her training can learn to play Mahler symphonies and go on to travel the world, to study abroad. When I left town, we were trying to arrange to support Aurora‘s travel costs to study in England, which is something we would do if we could for any serious young musician who has put the work in, earned the opportunity and needs the help. Those kinds of opportunities have been there for anyone who had the heart to earn them. Not every community can say that.
That has been what the OES stands for, and now every bit of that legacy is at risk. We need the community to step up to the plate, and we know that they will, but it’s important that people remember that the symphony isn’t just six Saturday nights a year. It’s a day-in-day-out, year-round effort by staffers, board members, volunteers and musicians to not just put on concerts but to transform lives. I think we were already about the hardest working orchestra in the world, and now we have to all work harder. If we’re so busy rebuilding our office that we can’t fulfil our mission, then we might as well not have an office.
We had just announced the details of our summer camp when the fire hit. That camp is often the first chance that kids in our area get to participate in an intense immersion in music. Who knows where this year’s first-timers will end up, or where music might take them in life. How many lives might they touch? How many cellos will get pulled out of how many fires by the kids who are starting this year? That camp has to happen. The teaching space has to re-open. The scholarship programs have to stay strong. We need every concert we do to continue to be the best concert we’ve ever done. Our staff need to have time and energy to make sure that happens. We need help to do that.