Community orchestra kicks off season

VERGENNES — This weekend, the Vergennes Opera House will host a lively program titled “Dance Mix.”
Don’t expect this dance music to have any thumping hip hop beats or Latin rhythms. Instead, the Champlain Philharmonic Orchestra’s set list will feature upbeat selections from the likes of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Benjamin Britten.
The orchestra, which got its start in 2004, holds a fall and a spring concert each year, performing at the Vergennes Opera House, the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, and other area venues.
Chair of the CPO board Larry Meier, a cello player from Charlotte, described the musicians as “advanced amateur” — all have other occupations and some also play in other orchestras.
In addition to their love of music, all share one other thing: They are local.
“The players being community members, families and friends is a benefit to all involved,” said Vergennes resident Mike Peluse, who plays French horn in the orchestra.
“It builds community,” said Meier, who has been involved since the group’s inception. “It’s a way to bring pretty high level orchestral music to the southern Champlain Valley.”
CPO co-founder Dieuwke Davydov of Cornwall teaches cello at Middlebury College and plays in the Vermont Symphony Orchestra (VSO). Six years ago, she was hearing from dedicated amateur musicians in the county that they wanted a place to play, and it occurred to her that there was no reason the community couldn’t support its own orchestra.
Just a few months later, Davydov and David Gusakov, a Bristol violinist and fellow VSO player, held the first auditions for the orchestra. Once they had an ensemble chosen they began to look for a place where a large group of musicians could rehearse.
“We started out with not a penny,” said Davydov. ”We had to find a place wonderful enough to offer us rehearsal space for free.”
The group was lucky: They were able to use the Parent-Child Center in Middlebury for auditions and the Vergennes Opera House for practice space. For the first season they paid for expenses with donations from the members.
The CPO held its debut concert in 2004, and since then, the orchestra has grown to stand on its own. Both founders have stepped out — Gusakov after serving as a longtime conductor.
The group’s new conductor and music director, Paul Gambill, comes to the group from Nashville. He now lives in Montpelier, and travels to Vergennes for weekly rehearsals. The highly acclaimed conductor and musician got his start with the CPO when he guest-conducted one of last year’s shows.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have (Gambill),” said Meier. “He’s helped to improve our musicality.”
And Peluse, who moved to Vergennes four years ago, said that there’s something different about this group from the other groups with which he has performed.
“People are in it because they love to play,” Peluse said. “Not every group has that spirit. It translates into effort.”
For the audience, too, the shows are unique. With the Vergennes venue, the CPO is nearby for Addison County residents. And the shows are less expensive than other orchestra concerts — tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors, compared to prices that can come close to $30 for a VSO show.
In addition, the setting is intimate. The approximately 45 members of the orchestra play on the same level as the audience, since the group is too large for the stage.
This, combined with the fact that the orchestra is composed of talent from the area, lends an intimate feeling to the group and strengthens the local art scene.
“Any strong community has to have a well-rounded arts program,” said Peluse.
The Champlain Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Saturday, Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 3, at 4 p.m. Tickets will be available at the Vergennes Opera House, Classic Stitching and at the door.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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