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Classical Happenings

After 20 years, Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra celebrates amateurs alongside professionals

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When the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra formed 20 years ago, they didn’t require their musicians to audition. 

“We just said if you’re interested and willing to play, come and join us,” says Robert Pattengale, a retired professor of music and one of the founders of the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra. 

He says the group initially came together to perform benefit concerts for the Little Traverse Bay’s emerging youth orchestra, which is now at Crooked Tree Arts Center.

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The musicians enjoyed playing in these benefit concerts so much that they decided to create a more permanent orchestra in the region. 

In October 2001, the newly minted Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra gave its first official concert.

Pattengale says some of the early concerts were sparsely attended.

"Sometimes we would get 25 people, and sometimes we’d have more players in the orchestra than we had in the audience," he says.

In those days the musicians were paid with whatever money had been donated at the door for each of their concerts. 

Musicians often came away with about eight dollars per performance.

Over time, the orchestra found its footing and continued to grow. 

They brought on Matthew Hazelwood as their first music director.

Hazelwood, who was also conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, served as the music director until his untimely death in 2012. 

And then, the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra leaders asked themselves some questions about their identity.

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Pattengale recalls, "You can become a professional orchestra, which means that a lot of the community members probably won’t be able to pass the audition. Or you can continue to be community-based."

Eventually, they agreed that they would continue to rely on a mix of professional and amateur musicians from the region.

One of these community musicians is Charlie MacInnis, who plays the clarinet.

He calls himself a “serious amateur.”

MacInnis spent his professional career in news and public relations.

He had a lot of experience playing in community bands, but this was his first time performing in an orchestra.

"I just made the quantum leap from playing Sousa marches to Beethoven," MacInnis says.

He says the professional musicians are really helpful.

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He recalls a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in which he had a solo: "The solo consists of B-natural, one note, but it was the fifth note into the Requiem. I had to play it perfectly." 

He sought guidance from his colleagues, and he says one person sent him a full page of advice, which he followed to the letter.

Today the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra is led by Libor Ondras, who is a violist as well as a conductor.

The Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra’s musicians no longer split donations collected at the door like they did in the early days. 

Now all the musicians have contracts, and they earn set fees for rehearsals and performances.

Founder Robert Pattengale says that the ensemble has exceeded any expectations he had for it 20 years ago. 

"Initially I thought if this thing lasts three years," he says, "that would be a nice run for the players to get a chance to make music."

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This Saturday’s concert includes a look back at the GLCO’s history, including some of their favorite repertoire from the past 20 years. 

The Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra performance will take place at the Great Lakes Center for the Arts in Bay Harbor, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place, including socially-distanced seating, temperature checks and mandatory masks.

Music director Libor Ondras will give a pre-concert talk at 6 p.m.

The concert begins at 7 p.m.

Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

Music heard in this story: Edvard Grieg, Holberg Suite; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem; David Lockington, Violet Viola Concerto