Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2017

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Columnist Tom Gorman: How the lovable Henderson Civic Symphony strikes a chord with its audience

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

You'll love the Henderson Civic Symphony when you hear it. And when you see it, you'll love it even more, the way you might love a cute, bouncy three-legged puppy or a lushly decorated Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

That is to say, its marvelous work is all the more a marvel when you realize its performance home is a basketball court inside a chilly, cinder block community recreation hall.

The 65-member musical family performed its Christmas concert this week, accompanied by tenor soloist Marco Varela and 300 scrubbed and smiling choral members from five local high schools. (They were outstanding.)

During rehearsal, conductor Peter Aaronson implored the students to better project their voices, and what he uttered has probably never been heard in a concert hall.

"We need just a little bit more sound," he said, nudging them with a warm smile. "The quality is excellent, but please direct it to the back wall and the basketball hoop."

He betrayed neither a laugh nor a tear. But talk about an orchestra in need of a performance hall.

The fact is, Peter said there's joy in performing in the drafty rec hall, which is coldly illuminated by hanging, industrial-size fluorescent lamps and which can accommodate nearly 1,000 people in plastic folding chairs. Persons in the first row can almost reach out and grab Peter's baton.

"The whole point of this orchestra is not to emulate the New York Philharmonic or the L.A. Philharmonic, but to be a product of our community," he told me after the Christmas show. "When our audience is seated so close to us, and the kids are there making a ruckus and walking around, that's a terrific thing because it means children are being exposed to live music, which is rarer and rarer these days.

"This is not an ideal concert hall by any means. But it's a grass-roots experience, for the audience and us to be mingling so close to one another."

OK, so drop the idea of a local performance hall for now, but please keep your hands off the timpani when you're walking around during intermission.

Among my favorite musicians: Evelyn Jones, who can barely reach the top of her bass. She learned the instrument in high school but set it aside when she was 20. She picked it up again seven years ago. She's 77.

The senior member of the symphony is Eleanor Beckert, who took up cello when she was 12. She put in 26 years with the old Las Vegas Civic Symphony before joining the Henderson Civic. She's 87 and arthritic. You have to love her for toting around an instrument that rolls on wheels; her wimpy brothers played flute and piccolo.

Third-generation Las Vegan Linda Murphy, a 45-year-old music teacher, is one of five siblings who collectively play 33 instruments. (In the symphony, she is first cello.)

She echoed other symphony members when she told me, "Peter is an amazing human being for having gotten us to play at a level beyond what any of us thought we could have achieved."

Trumpet player John Dunia, 47, credited Peter for instilling a can-do attitude among the musicians. "He has never belittled us," Dunia said. "He tells us to trust ourselves."

That reassurance has brought comfort to the symphony's youngest member, 15-year-old harpist Chalette Lambert. You might think she was nervous as she performed her solo during the Nutcracker Suite's Waltz of the Flowers.

"But I could tell, by the way he was smiling at me, that I was doing a good job," she said.

There are some old pros among the musicians. Bassist Peter Eastman played with big bands for 60 years, working just about every big hotel in San Francisco and some of the biggest joints in L.A.

Percussionist John Nasshan, who's 50 and has played just about every Vegas room over the past 30 years when he's not touring on the road, said jazz players like himself relish the opportunity to play "legit music."

"I'm playing with schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, old ladies and young girls," John said. "They are far less pretentious than what you'd find in a professional orchestra -- and I think we're having more fun than people who get paid."

The credit, he said, goes to Peter. "I've worked with conductors in my career who would have been too impatient or too egotistical to do what Peter's doing," he said. "Too often in the symphonic world, you have the orchestra and you have God on the podium with a baton. Not so with Peter. He invites us to play the music the way we'd like to hear the music. That's very empowering."

Peter's professional conducting debut was in 1976 with the American Symphony in New York; this is his fourth season with the Henderson symphony. His first love is opera; he also has worked behind the curtain as a technical expert, including a stint as stage manager at Radio City Music Hall.

He landed in Las Vegas in 1993 as entertainment director at Bally's, and then supervised the opening of the new Venetian showroom. These days, Peter helps design, engineer and install high-end audio systems for big venues.

If he enjoys coaxing good sound out of machines, he loves coaxing beautiful music out of people.

"Some conductors demand specific precision in, say, holding or fingering an instrument, and they begin to over-analyze every millimeter of action," he said. "I say, forget all of that. We're putting together a (musical) painting, in an impressionistic sense.

"Each of us is a dot in that painting, and I'm not looking at how each dot looks, but how the overall painting appears."

This season he has enjoyed the results. Before the Christmas concert, Peter addressed the musicians in a side room. "It has been a profound pleasure for me," he told them, "to be here, to have this much fun, this much joy. Bravo!" And then they walked onto the basketball court.