It was hard to tell who was entertaining and who was being entertained when the Pasadena Community Orchestra turned out last Saturday for its annual outdoor concert at Sierra Madre Memorial Park.
"We let down our hair a little bit, play a little lighter music and cater to the audience," said Wayne Reinecke, a Pasadena City College music instructor who conducts and directs the 70-piece volunteer orchestra.
"This is always our best concert of the year because everybody is just out there to enjoy themselves," said Kim Rodriguez, who has played French horn with the group for six years. "The orchestra exists largely for our own enjoyment, and this concert is for everybody's enjoyment."
Many of the 600 concert-goers who crowded around the orchestra in lawn chairs and on picnic blankets arrived well before the orchestra began tuning up for its 6:30 p.m. performance. Some, munching on fried chicken from a nearby fast-food restaurant or homemade delicacies in fancy wicker baskets, said the setting reminded them of the Hollywood Bowl, without the big-city headaches.
"It's just like going to the Bowl, but you don't have to fight the crowds or pay the admission," said Reggie Agajanian, who with her husband, Mel, had set up chairs in the center of the park.
The couple said they attend the orchestra's four other performances each year at the First United Methodist Church in Pasadena but prefer the atmosphere at the outdoor concerts.
It was Pops night for the orchestra, which started in 1954 as the Pasadena City College Orchestra. In 1983, budget cuts forced the college to eliminate the orchestra from its music program. But the musicians, including accountants, schoolteachers, physicians, clerks and a number of retired people, wanted to keep the group going and formed the nonprofit foundation under which the orchestra now operates.
The indoor concerts, which are held from September to May, usually include a number of classical selections. But Saturday's program also featured selections from "Fiddler on the Roof," "Oklahoma" and the polka from "The Bartered Bride."
"It's amazingly good for a community orchestra," said Suzanne Morton of Pasadena, who was at the concert with her husband, Douglas, and their three daughters. "They don't seem to be afraid to tackle big pieces in their regular concerts."
Doris Karnes of El Monte arrived at the park nearly two hours before the concert began to reserve a place on the grass for a friend and herself. She said the concert was one of many instrumental performances, mostly classical, that she attends in the Los Angeles area.
"I think they're wonderful, absolutely beautiful," Karnes said of the group. "I'm crazy about horns. They just knock me out."
Ron and Linda Larson of Sierra Madre turned the event into a block party, attending with 14 fellow residents of East Laurel Street. Their month-old son, Aaron, was enjoying his first picnic, and the couple speculated that he was probably the youngest in the crowd.
"We enjoy music and the opportunity to come out in the park," said Ron Larson. "That's why I'm living in Sierra Madre, because it's family oriented."
Other concert-goers who had little or no exposure to live orchestral performances were pleasantly surprised by what they heard.
"I like this kind of music," said Melinda Scott of Pasadena. "It's really relaxing."
Cindy Chick and David Musikoff were enjoying the show, even though their dog, Alex, a German shepherd, was more interested in the crowd than the music.
"We could hear this on the radio and we'd probably turn it off, but this is nice," Chick said. "There's just something about hearing it live."
The orchestra was the first group to perform in the city's nearly completed band shell in the center of the park. The event was planned in conjunction with the centennial of the Sierra Madre Library. The shell, which was funded through private donations and built by volunteers, should be completed by the end of July and will be available for a variety of outdoor events.
Orchestra members mingled with the crowd, and some captured the spirit of the event by tying balloons to their instruments and music stands.
"This is a real treat," said Betty Asher, a bassoonist who has been with the orchestra for nine months. "It's a change from the usual formal indoor concerts."
Andy Hyjer, a string bass player who has played with the group for four years, said the outdoor concert best exemplifies the reasons he had for joining the orchestra.
"I love music so much that I want to share it," he said. "We all do it for the love of it."