Making music in unexpected locations, like this string quartet concert tucked between the magazines and music at the Main Library, is one of the trademarks of the Civic Orchestra. Photos courtesy Civic Orchestra.

Stay tuned: Civic Orchestra provides community performance opportunities for volunteer musicians

When Danielle Rowell’s career path veered away from her first love—music—to calculating retirement benefits for the Municipal Police Employees’ Retirement System, she found herself missing playing the French horn, especially with other musicians in an ensemble.

Rowell, 30, began searching for fellow musicians who weren’t quite professionals but still enjoyed playing music. But to her disappointment she couldn’t find an amateur orchestra or a club for adult musicians whose members played in their spare time. “There are softball leagues, but there’s not an orchestra,” says Rowell.

Rowell, who majored in music at LSU, decided to change that. She contacted renowned conductor Carlos Riazuelo, Manship Director of Orchestra Studies at the LSU School of Music, and together they formed a nonprofit organization called the Civic Orchestra of Baton Rouge.

Surrounded by vibrant hues from the exhibition “Harmonies in Color,” the orchestra performed in the atrium of the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in November.

Using word of mouth, along with the group’s website and its Facebook page, the orchestra’s membership has grown to about 45 musicians since the first rehearsal in January 2019.

The orchestra, made up entirely of volunteers, has performed for free at the Ebb & Flow Festival, the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, Knock Knock Children’s Museum and several Baton Rouge library branches.

The Civic Orchestra of Baton Rouge is unique for two reasons: It attracts former musicians, mostly non-professionals, who want to dust off their instruments and play again. But the orchestra also introduces classical music to an audience that may not otherwise be exposed to that type of music or be too intimidated to attend an orchestral performance, Rowell says. “If their children start to cry, it’s OK,” Rowell says. “If they want to dance, it’s OK. It’s not a restrictive environment.”

The orchestra also breaks into smaller groups of string, brass and woodwind instruments called chamber sessions to play at smaller venues. Rowell says audience members have been excited to see orchestra instruments up close and personal. “It’s been a very positive reaction,” she says.

With a mission of exposing young audience members to classical melodies, Knock Knock Children’s Museum welcomed the orchestra’s string quartet, woodwind quintet and brass quintet last summer. Shown here are Civic Orchestra president Danielle Rowell and Knock Knock learning innovations program coordinator Tammy Mulhearn.

The Civic Orchestra of Baton Rouge has had a positive effect on its own musicians as well. People in general want to feel like they matter, like they belong to something bigger than just themselves, Rowell says. “I think this orchestra allows people to put their differences aside and connect with each other, and at the same time it allows them to give back to the community,” she says.

It’s also a great stress relief to concentrate on nothing but the music in front of them. “Playing music allows people to home in on what they are doing, to be in the moment,” says Rowell. “Oftentimes in our society today we are surrounded by distractions and multitasking. Whenever you play your instrument, all you are focused on is making a beautiful sound and blending, conversing with the other instruments. I believe that it is important, especially in today’s society, to step back, slow down the distractions, and be in the moment.”

Andrian Harabaru, who is in his final year of a doctoral program in cello performance at LSU, says he learned of the Civic Orchestra of Baton Rouge through Riazuelo. Harabaru, 29, attended a rehearsal in fall 2019 and immediately felt at home. “I felt the connection with them, and they decided they would like to have me there,” says Harabaru, who today serves as the orchestra’s associate conductor. “I said, yes, lovely, I will do my best.”

Some still in their scrubs and office attire, the orchestra’s members gather for weekly rehearsals.

Working with the teachers, engineers, computer programmers and health care professionals who make up the Civic Orchestra of Baton Rouge galvanized Harabaru. “I was impressed to find out how many people have a music education background in Baton Rouge but also choose to take a different path,” says Harabaru. With Riazuelo’s upcoming retirement, Cliff Croomes, LSU Tiger Marching Band interim assistant director of bands, will serve as conductor with the help of Harabaru and Elvis Bendaña Rivas, Rowell says.

The fact that most of the orchestra’s musicians have day jobs away from music is part of the group’s magic. “Whether you play or want to listen, there’s more in a community than pro musicians,” says Bond Lux, the orchestra’s sole bassoon player. “Our appeal is that we do it because we want to do it and we like to do it, not because there’s a paycheck involved.”

Since the orchestra is now one year old, it strives to continue its mission of community engagement. The group practices each Monday evening at McKinley Middle Magnet School. The orchestra is looking for more musicians who are 18 years old or older, Rowell says, and is especially in need of string players.

“We’re hoping that as awareness of the group expands, people will pull, particularly, their string instruments out of the closets and come give us a try,” says Lux.