In a brightly lit room overlooking the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, 11 musicians warm up their instruments and grouse good-naturedly about their chilly commutes. A flute player says she spent an hour traveling from Riverside. The group hopes their violinist, coming all the way from Long Island, will be able to make it through the snow. Despite the wintry weather, the musicians are excited to get down to business, tackling Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4 (“Mozartiana”).
Every Thursday, musicians from all over the city travel to Roosevelt Island to play in the Classical Musicians’ Rehearsal Symphony Orchestra, a free group open to anyone who cares to join.
Founded by longtime Islander Arlene Stock, the Rehearsal Symphony is a “reading orchestra,” which means they don’t perform publicly. Instead, the group comes together each week for the enjoyment of playing with other musicians and trying out interesting pieces.
Cindy Mermin, an oboe player who lives near Union Square, plays in several community orchestras around the city. “When I got to be 60, I decided I have to do something besides work,” she explains. “I decided to do something I really wanted to do, so I went back to the oboe I had played in high school. A lot of retired people come back to playing music. Orchestras in the city are full of us older people.”
But Mermin says she enjoys the unique experience of Stock’s group. “You never get to play this kind of music [in community orchestras]. These pieces are unusual; they are a little more difficult. Some require bigger orchestras or more skilled orchestras than what’s available.”
“But because we’re not performing for others, we can try them,” Stock interjects. “You get to play things you’ve dreamed about playing your whole life.”
Mermin notes that today’s Tchaikovsky piece “has a killer clarinet cadenza.” On hearing this, a nearby clarinet player leans over and confides, “I’m glad my friend warned me. I thought, ‘I better go take a look at this piece before I show up!’”
“People who want to play will go anywhere to have the opportunity to play,” explains Stock when asked how she’s attracted musicians from so many different parts of the city. The Rehearsal Symphony is the only dedicated reading orchestra Stock knows of in the city.
“I was so glad to find this group,” says Mary Lynn Hanley, who plays the flute and piccolo in the United Nations Symphony Orchestra. “We play a whole concerto or sonata every week, so I’m introduced to a lot of new music.”
Still, Stock would love to have more musicians from the Island. “I think a lot of people just don’t know about the opportunity.”
Viola player Albert Novikoff is one of the Islanders who does attend the practices when he’s able. A chamber musician at heart, Novikoff says he travels all over Manhattan playing in different string quartets. “This is the only orchestra I have ever played in. When you’re in an orchestra, you’re frequently waiting while other groups perfect their parts. That’s the reason I don’t play in orchestras, and the reason I do like this. We don’t rehearse, we just play.” He admits that not having to get on the subway is pretty appealing as well.
Open To All
Stock, who plays the flute, started the Rehearsal Symphony in 2014. “I started this ensemble to create a home for all musicians – irrespective of age, experience, or walk of life – who share a love of classical music.” She says the group’s welcoming spirit reflects her own experience on the Island.
“As I was moving into my current apartment more than 20 years ago, my neighbor threw open her door and said ‘Come in, come in!’ I think of the orchestra like that. Come in! It is all about embracing kindred spirits.”
Rehearsal takes place Thursdays from 12:00-2:00 p.m. Before each rehearsal, Stock sends an email to the group with a link to that week’s piece. Musicians only need to bring their instruments; Stock provides music stands, scores, and a conductor. Shawn Chang, a professional pianist, helps fill in any parts that aren’t covered by the other musicians.
“We are very short on string players,” Novikoff says, raising his voice to be heard over the melodies around him. “Please entreat anyone who plays a string instrument to come!”