At National Repertory Orchestra, Young Musicians Learn More Than The Classics

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Photo: NRO Madeleine Vaillancourt
Violinist Madeleine Vaillancourt is serving as co-concertmaster of the National Repertory Orchestra during the 2016 season.

It’s a sunny morning in Breckenridge, and rehearsal is under way at the Riverwalk Center concert hall. The National Repertory Orchestra and its music director, Carl Topilow, fine-tune Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances for an upcoming concert.

Onstage, 88 college-aged musicians watch for cues from conductor Carl Topilow, who’s led the NRO for 38 years. He says he doesn’t think of the young musicians as students.

“We call them young professionals,” Topilow says backstage. “They’re motivated, they’re talented and they’re eager to learn and eager to play the great repertoire.”

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Each summer, aspiring classical musicians head to the Rocky Mountains for weeks of practice, rehearsals and concerts at festivals like the NRO.

They like the scenery and the hiking, but they aren't the main attractions. The musicians come here to embrace the life of a 21st century orchestra player. And that doesn’t mean simply learning how to play classical masterworks in concert.

That means learning how to put together a children’s concert. They play a Fourth of July program. And a pops concert. They learn about music therapy. Auditioning tips. Even investing tips.

Photo: NRO rehearsal 2016
Carl Topilow leads a rehearsal of the National Repertory Orchestra at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge.

“You don’t just show up, play a concert and go home,” he says. “You’re expected to be an advocate for your orchestra -- whether it’s going out into the community and performing or whatever you could do to help your orchestra stay alive."

Bassoonist Sandra Bailey says she’s eager to soak up all of the lessons. Pops concerts and children’s programs aren’t Beethoven and Brahms -- but they’re part of how orchestras connect with new listeners.

“It’s a great span. And it’s what we have to do eventually in orchestras today,” Bailey says.

Violinist Madeleine Vaillancourt is serving as co-concertmaster this summer, and played a gorgeous rendition of Anton Dvorak’s Violin Concerto a few weeks ago. She says she and the other musicians know becoming a pro is daunting. It takes patience, discipline and the stomach to handle rejection.

“The number of rejections to successes is usually gonna be ten times as much,” she says. “So you might as well get used to that and remind yourself why you’re doing this, which is because you love music and you can’t see yourself doing anything else. Which is definitely true for me.”

Despite tough odds, many NRO musicians have found jobs in professional symphonies. NRO alumni play in orchestras across the country -- in places like San Francisco, Chicago and Dallas.

And at least one current NRO player is already on his way to a professional orchestra.

Timpanist Jay Ritchie recently landed a job with the Detroit Symphony. In fact, Ritchie’s new boss -- the principal timpanist in Detroit -- spent a summer in the NRO years ago.

The National Repertory Orchestra’s season runs through July 29.