Symphony in the Valley ‘stretches the soul’ |

Symphony in the Valley ‘stretches the soul’

Amy Hadden Marsh
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent

The late bandleader Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royale Orchestra have nothing on Carlos Elias and the Symphony in the Valley.

Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924 for an event at New York City’s Aeolian Hall and eventually made it his band’s signature tune. Last December – almost 90 years later – Symphony in the Valley, with Andrea Arese-Elias at the piano, brought the iconic jazz melody to Glenwood Springs.

First trumpet Kelly Thompson, of Rifle, believes that SITV wouldn’t have been able to play that piece 10 years ago.

“We’ve consistently gotten to a higher performance level,” he said. “Those of us sitting behind [Andrea] had to be pretty good.”

The Symphony in the Valley made its debut in December 1993 at Glenwood Springs High School. The orchestra, under the baton of Jon Madsen, played works by Grieg, Haydn, Irving Berlin and others.

Over the past two decades, performances have increased from two concerts a year in Glenwood Springs to six concerts in venues from Parachute to Aspen (including the Wheeler Opera House), two nights of the popular Symphony Swing fundraiser, and in some years, a July Fourth performance at Glenwood’s Two Rivers Park.

The 50-member orchestra, which includes musicians from as far away as Mesa and Eagle counties, is a mix of professionals and amateurs.

Bassist Ashton Taufer, for example, is a graduate of Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Timpanist Laurie Loeb teaches rhythm and drumming throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and for years led the Carbondale Mountain Fair’s opening drum circle.

Some are medical professionals, working or retired, several are school music teachers and some are high school students.

“I love to play with amateurs,” said board member Deborah Barnekow, who has played first oboe with the orchestra. “They have such heart and they’re always excited about what they’re playing.”

Barnekow also organizes the orchestra’s annual Young Artists Concerto Competition. Founded in 2004 for local music students, the contest is now open to anyone in the United States between ages 6 and 30. There’s a junior division for youth under 18 and a senior division for young adults between 18 and 30 with a small purse for the winners.

The real prize is much bigger. Winners perform their pieces in public with Symphony in the Valley at its Mother’s Day concerts, showing off their talent to prospective managers in the audience who might be looking for the next Pavarotti, Perlman or Pires.

“This is how you build a curriculum vitae,” explained Barnekow, who also works full-time with the Aspen Music Festival. “It opens doors.”

Local student musicians, however, do not have to be Carnegie Hall material to join SITV. In fact, several current players are in middle or high school.

“It’s the only option for kids who want to play a stringed instrument,” said Thompson. “There aren’t a lot of school orchestral programs here.”

Thompson, a Colorado State University graduate with a degree in music education, taught music in Rifle and New Castle schools for 11 years and was the band director for Rifle Middle and Rifle High School.

He joined the orchestra 10 years ago and plays a Bach Stradivarius trumpet. This year, he is also the music program director for Symphony Swing, the orchestra’s annual fundraising events, as well as stepping up as one of three conductors and singing a few solos.

Symphony Swing got its start as a dinner-dance at the Hotel Colorado the same year Thompson joined SITV. In subsequent years, the show has traveled to Carbondale, Parachute and Rifle. It’s Thompson’s favorite event.

“Symphony Swing is more for singers and brass,” he said. “Mozart doesn’t have brass except maybe a note.”

Thompson’s baritone voice is perfect for tunes such as Harry Connick Jr.’s “A Wink and A Smile,” or “Fly Me to the Moon,” the Bart Howard tune popularized by Frank Sinatra. Both are on the song list for this year’s dances at the Grand River Hospital Ballroom on Friday, Feb. 24 and the Hotel Colorado on Saturday, Feb. 25.

Meanwhile, the orchestra is in rehearsal every Wednesday night for the May performances in Glenwood Springs and Rifle.

“It’s nice to have a place for everyone to get together and play,” said Thompson. “The symphony provides that.”

Paul Whiteman might agree. “Jazz tickles your muscles,” he once said. “Symphonies stretch your soul.”

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