With Musicians Who Play Because They Want to, Orchestra Is a Rhapsody in Longevity

Times Staff Writer

Ninety unpaid musicians will gather Monday for the inaugural rehearsal of a volunteer orchestra’s 33rd season of free concerts, and nobody can fully explain why.

Not even James Fahringer, who has been showing up for half his life, can account for the predictability and longevity of the Claremont Symphony Orchestra.

“I don’t question, I just keep going,” said Fahringer, 50, as he begins his seventh season as music director and conductor. He began 25 years ago as an unpaid instrumentalist, just like all the others, giving his city at least 100 hours of time and talent every year. The music director for 27 years before Fahringer was George Denes, who founded the orchestra in 1953.

Fahringer rhapsodizes about “the opportunities for musical expression” that arise from “this absolutely unique group.”

“It’s enormously stable,” he said. “It’s amateur in the best sense of the word, in that people come because they want to.”


That goes for audiences, too. They consistently fill the 650-seat Little Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College where most of each season’s five concerts are given on Sunday afternoons.

“People in the community claim us as their orchestra,” Fahringer said. “Sometimes we have them sitting in the aisles and hope the Fire Department doesn’t show up.”

Very little money changes hands. A plate for donations is by the door, but the symphony depends mostly on annual contributions from businesses, agencies and dozens of citizens. Its budget of about $20,000 a year pays for hall rental, printing, occasional guest soloists and small stipends for Fahringer and a couple of assistants.

“We tried selling tickets one season and ended up losing money, so we never did that again,” Fahringer said.

Bert Norton, 75, and his wife, Winifred, have played bass clarinet and flute, respectively, since the orchestra began. They said they continue because “it’s therapy--an escape from the reality of all the demands of work and home. I think that’s what most orchestra members would tell you.” Norton rates the orchestra as “good and professional.”

Fahringer points out that the orchestra was invited to play for the centennial celebration of the USC School of Music in 1984, the year it also won an ASCAP (Assn. of Composers, Authors and Publishers) award for community orchestras.

Fahringer, a music teacher in Pomona public schools, said that about one-third of the orchestra members are professional musicians, most of them music teachers. He is one of several who have doctorates in music; some who are on the faculty of the Claremont Colleges have doctorates in other fields. The performers range from high school students to people in their 80s who have been musicians all their lives.

“We don’t have much in common with other orchestras,” Fahringer said. “Where else can you find 90 people who come for free?”

Unlike the competitive musicians in most professional orchestras, Fahringer said, the Claremont Symphony’s musicians “usually know before anyone else when they are not playing well, and willingly step down.”

On the rare occasions when there is a vacancy, it usually is filled by invitation. “We haven’t had an opening in winds for so long I don’t know what we’d do,” Fahringer said.

“The players are least happy when they know they’re not playing as well as they should. We know we’ll never reach professional levels in some aspects, and we’ll be better in some.”

The first symphony concert this season will be at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 20 in Little Bridges Auditorium, featuring as soloists USC’s noted teaching sisters, Alice and Elinor Schoenfeld, who will play Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello. Also on the program will be Smetana’s “From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite.

The final program will be April 1. For each concert, the orchestra will have four to six rehearsals, each lasting several hours.

“Most of them will show up most of the time,” Fahringer predicted.