Since 1991, Alpine Orchestra has provided live classical orchestral music to the citizens and visitors of the Upper Arkansas River Valley. The founders and original members came together from Leadville, Buena Vista and Salida, forming their first orchestra from about 15 people.
Over time, the orchestra has grown to over 40 members ranging from 14 to 85 years old, spread over Lake, Chaffee, Summit, Park and Fremont counties. The members continue to enjoy performing in rehearsals and concerts together, including longtime member and cello player Ruth Spencer.
Spencer’s cello was passed down to her from her father, previously given to him by his father, though to her knowledge neither of them played. During her high school years, she “dabbled” in an after-school orchestra consisting of four musicians. After that, her playing faded for some time until she and her mom attended an Alpine Orchestra performance at the Presbyterian Church in Leadville.
“The music seemed pretty basic, and I thought it would be fun to join a group,” Spencer says. “Little did I know how unprepared I was. One thing led to another, and soon I was studying with a cello teacher in Denver twice a month.”
She has played her cello with the Alpine Orchestra since 1992 and considers the experience “an absolute pleasure” for the most part. She gives a lot of credit to her early mentor, the late Ellen Killerlain of Salida, “who had to be the most patient person alive to sit by me and try to teach me what it meant to participate in group music.” She is also grateful toward her first conductor, Dr. James Horner, for pairing her up with Killerlain despite Spencer being a rank beginner and Killerlain playing section principal.
Each week, Spencer would join her fellow orchestra members in after-rehearsal trips to Gunsmoke in Johnson Village “where there was more laughing than anyone should be allowed.”
Over time, Spencer has been on and off the orchestra’s board of directors. In the mid-2000s she served as president of the board, and recently she was elected president again.
When it comes to music, she hesitates to pick a favorite.
“Any concert that includes Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, Schubert or Bach is okay in my book,” she said. While known for classical concerts, the orchestra has tried to incorporate a variety of music over the years, adding jazz, cowboy, big band and movie tunes, among others, to their repertoire.
At the same time, Alpine Orchestra is always looking to add more members, including student musicians. “One of our important missions is to encourage the next generation of musicians,” Spencer says. “We offer a scholarship for high schoolers who are pursuing a career in instrumental music, and currently have a scholarship opportunity for a high schooler who wishes to be a music educator.”
The orchestra has seen a number of young, talented musicians join its ranks, including percussionist Molly McMurry and celloist Armani Alarid.
As the orchestra is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization, sporadic attendance and commitment are some of the biggest challenges. “Currently we are facing a perilous lack of upper string players (violins, violas), but at other times it has been lack of percussionists, low brass instruments, or you name it,” Spencer explained.
“The orchestra has matured over the years, and has, by fits and starts played more demanding and interesting music,” she said. “As the organization has grown, we sometimes outgrew our performance venues, and have had to do many improvisations over the years. Before the SteamPlant was the SteamPlant we know today, we performed there with pigeons flying about and the audience sitting on sports risers.”
Spencer is excited for the upcoming concert “Giants!” which includes works from Antonin Dvorak, Sir Malcolm Arnold, Hector Berlioz and other musicians. It will also feature several student performers.
The concert takes place Friday, Nov. 8, at the Old Church at Eighth Street and Harrison Avenue in Leadville at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 9, at the SteamPlant Theater in Salida at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 10, at ClearView Community Church in Buena Vista at 3:30 p.m.
Interested in joining Spencer and the orchestra? Check out www.alpineorchestra.org for membership and other information.