- Editor's note: "Spring Tune-Up" will be performed Sunday, April 3 at 3 p.m., not Saturday as was originally written.
More than 60 years ago, Hartsdale's Paul Greenburg bought a clarinet and a book of music and taught himself to play. Les Krasnogor, from Chappaqua, also played the clarinet in elementary school, but retired his instrument for more than 50 years—only to revisit his childhood passion recently, determined to make music once again.
But what amateur orchestra would accept a musician with no formal training and one who took and a half-century hiatus from the craft?
The Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester!
Founded two years ago by Irvington resident Barbara Rosenthal, The Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester is an affiliate of the original group based in Edinburgh, Scotland. There are no auditions and musical arrangements are no more difficult than those played by high school ensembles—the only requirement is that members have to love to play.
"When I heard about the orchestra started in Scotland, I immediately thought 'This is my mission!,'" Rosenthal recalled. "I always run into people who tell me how much they miss playing but say, 'Oh, I'm too bad to join an orchestra.' The beauty of this orchestra is all in its name; nobody is too intimidated to join."
The Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester will hold its first concert of the season—"Spring Tune-Up"—on Sunday, April 3 at 3 p.m. at Grace Church in White Plains. Led by conductor Benjamin Niemczyk, the RTO will tackle works by Bach, Brahms, Bizet, Mussorgsky and—according to their press release—"other composers unable to respond with legal action." Following the classical selection, the Really Terrible Dixieland Jazz Band, an affiliate combo, will tackle a medley of popular standards.
Since its conception in 2009, the orchestra has grown from 12 members to almost 50. And, Rosenthal says, "The more the merrier."
"I'm terrible at several instruments," said Cindy Scinto, who said she saw a flyer for the group in a Starbucks in Mt. Kisco. "But I play flute in this orchestra because it's easier to carry than a piano."
Bronxville's Ira Spier hadn't played his trumpet since high school before joining the RTO. "It's sure fun to pick it up again," he said.
Jeanne Velonis, a Dobbs Ferry resident who plays the accordion for both the classical orchestra and the Dixieland Jazz Ensemble, pointed out that "you have to have a good sense of humor to join a really terrible orchestra"—which explains why members all seem to enjoy each other's company immensely.
Though conductor Niemczyk has vast experience leading more serious choral groups, he is relishing his time leading the Really Terrible Orchestra. After he was offered the position, Niemczyk said his father helped him make the final decision to take the plunge. "He said, 'Ben, this is the ultimate challenge,'" Niemczyk recalled, chuckling.
But he has been pleasantly surprised at how driven the musicians are."I think it's because we're in Westchester," said Niemczyk, who is originally from Chicago. "The musicians may say they don't want to get better but they can't help but improve."
Besides leading the orchestra to perform classical pieces to the best of their abilities, Niemczyk's second goal is to encourage young, local composers to submit their pieces to the orchestra. He plans to start commissioning pieces by high school and college-age composers from the area. "Most of 'the Greats' didn't go to top conservatories," he said. "Young talent needs to be harnessed now before they get older and discouraged."
Rosenthal, who also revived the Irvington schools' orchestra program in 1999, is passionate about bringing music into people's lives.
"Music is an intrinsic part of human expression—which, in so many cases, gets suppressed because people are told they are not good enough," she said. "That's why this orchestra is such a fantastic outlet. They think, 'Everyone's terrible so I'll fit in!'"
To find out more about the Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester, call Barbara Rosenthal at (914) 582-9096.