Plays Well with Others

Louisville Civic Orchestra Opens Its 103rd Season of Sweet Sounds

By Laura Ross

Photos courtesy of Louisville Civic Orchestra

It’s time once again to mark your calendars for the orchestra’s season premiere – but, not that orchestra – instead, we mean the Louisville Civic Orchestra (LCO).

Although the LCO calls itself one of Louisville’s best kept secrets, it shouldn’t be. In fact, it has been around since 1915 under a handful of names, including the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Symphony, the JCC Orchestra, the Bellarmine Orchestra and finally, the Louisville Civic Orchestra.

“We are a living piece of Louisville history that many people don’t know about,” said Jason Raff, 37, the organization’s principal conductor. “It’s a fascinating story with such important impacts on Louisville.”

LCO, which is Louisville’s oldest continuously performing orchestra, kicks off its 103rd season on Oct. 20 with a celebration of Beethoven featuring internationally-renowned guest violinist Andrew Sords. The concert will begin at 7 p.m. at Holy Spirit Church, 3345 Lexington Road. Like all LCO concerts, admission is free, but ticket reservations are requested at louisvillecivicorchestra.org

LCO offers a professional-level environment for musicians from all backgrounds, ages and geographic regions to come together to perform and share music. Rehearsals are held at Bellarmine University each Wednesday evening – a weekly tradition that’s been upheld in different locations for more than 100 years with little interruption.

Judy Larkin and Jane Reichler.

“Before Louisville had a professional opera, orchestra or ballet, we had a civic arts organization,” said Raff. “(It) took root around 1915 and focused on the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Symphony. By 1937, half of the members of the symphony and civic arts association decided to go professional and recruited Chicago conductor Robert Whitney to come to Louisville. In time, he created the Louisville Orchestra, and the other half of the Young Men’s symphony stayed at JCC and became what was known as the Louisville Civic Orchestra.”

Today, the all-volunteer ensemble is made up of roughly half amateur musicians mixed with professional or classically-trained musicians. Everyone is welcome, with the performers’ ages ranging from 14 to 95. The youngest member, Asha Peoples, joined as a violinist at the age of 12 and is currently a student at Youth Performing Arts School. LCO’s eldest member, Jane Reichler, has performed continually with the orchestra for nearly 40 years. Her talent, love of music and dedication to the orchestra is legendary, says her fellow cellist and “stand partner” Judy Larkin.

“I was Jane Reichler’s stand partner for about 37 years,” said Larkin. “Jane was the principal of the cello section until recently, and she also performed in the Kling string orchestra for many years. She has an unbelievable commitment to this orchestra.”

Larkin’s commitment is strong as well and is representative of many of the orchestra’s members. A retired clinical social worker and a cellist since age 11, Larkin joined the LCO in 1979. She has played in community orchestras and performed professionally for the Rockford Symphony.

“I am very proud to be a part of this piece of Louisville’s arts and cultural history,” said Larkin. “We have a love of playing in the orchestra and providing musical enjoyment for others.

“Over the years, I have played with orchestra members with various professional backgrounds, including teachers, dentists, doctors and other professions,” she added.

Jackie Booker, 23, is a server and prep cook at Cracker Barrel and Sicilian Pizza. Her love of music is focused on cello, piano and violin. “Music is my everything,” she said. “Even though I work a lot, to me, music is a wordless language. You may not be able to understand everything, but if you get up from your seat feeling more enlightened and moved in the end, we have done our job. One of our most inspirational players is Ms. Jane (Reichler). I hope to be like her when I grow up. She really gets into the music even though she is one of the longest-standing members.”

By day, Raff is a Spanish interpreter in the Kentucky court system. For him, serving as principal conductor for the LCO is a second full-time job but one that he happily took on. Raff – who has degrees in Spanish, cello performance and conducting – was approached in 2014 to help with an “emergency” conducting job but then was invited to stay on as the permanent conductor. “(The orchestra) was in a precarious place when I arrived,” said Raff. “It was nearly the 100th anniversary, and (it) had dwindled to about 15 players.”

Raff rallied those members and together they formed an independent board, reclaimed the 1932 name of Louisville Civic Orchestra and worked to expand the group. Today, it numbers around 60 musicians. “I love to conduct and interpret music, but I think about the history that this orchestra has in Louisville, and that’s a rare opportunity for me,” said Raff. “It’s not every day I could be at the ground level of rebuilding this piece of Louisville’s rich arts history. Our hope is LCO continues to thrive and 50 years from now, we’ll be talking about a 150-year-old orchestra.”

The Oct. 20 concert will feature Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Fidelio Overture and Symphony No. 7. Later concerts will include “Holidays at the Movies” in December, Mozart Requiem in February, “Enigma Variations” in April and a collaborative concert with Jukebox the Ghost in June.

Jacqueline “Jackie” Booker (left) and Jane Reichler.

LCO presents five free concerts each year with a growing outreach to the entire Louisville community. The 2019 season is scattered throughout locations in Jefferson County, including St. Matthews, the Shawnee neighborhood and the Highlands. “Our concerts are purposely free,” said Raff. “We want to be accessible and be a key entry point for people who can’t financially attend quality musical or cultural events. We’re also a good choice for people who want to introduce their children to orchestral music without worrying about paying a high-ticket price.”

The passion for performing is palpable for the Louisville Civic Orchestra members.

“It’s difficult to express in words how it feels to play a musical instrument,” said Larkin. “It is an emotional experience, which is very rewarding, satisfying and comforting. For me, it created a balance in my life as my job as a social worker in psychiatric hospitals was very difficult and stressful. I met many wonderful musicians over the years and developed friendships with them.”

When he’s conducting on stage, Raff sometimes lets his mind wander to the past. “That magical moment when everything is flowing is when I enjoy it most,” he said. “As conductor, I encourage them (musicians) to give their best energy and best performance ever. This may be their only musical outlet, and they get on stage and express it, and it truly speaks to our audiences.”

Raff noted that the upcoming performance is similar to a concert the LCO performed in 1931 in Louisville. “When I’m on the stage, I like to think of the stream of time we’re a part of,” he said. “I go back in my mind and imagine 1931’s concert and think, here we are, 87 years later, performing that same music. It’s an unbroken chain of history. That’s cool.VT

LCO’s Beethoven with Andrew Sords

Holy Spirit Church
7 p.m. Oct. 20