Sometimes it’s hard to predict how hungry a community can be for great music. This summer, Patricia Glunt, a retired New York City Public Schools music educator and resident of the richly diverse Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, fulfilled a longtime dream by forming a new musical group, the Jackson Heights Orchestra. Six rehearsals later, on December 12, the volunteer ensemble made its debut, eighteen strong, at a packed Community United Methodist Church, performing music of Handel, Holst, and Respighi, as well as arrangements of two traditional Christmas carols with New York-based soprano Jayne Skoog as soloist. The community support for the endeavor was tremendous, judging from the strong turnout and comments from Edward Westley, chairman of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a community betterment organization that helped sponsor the event, and Daniel Dromm, New York Councilman for Jackson Heights. The buildup to the concert was so stressful and exciting that Glunt lost her voice the day of the concert, so SymphonyNOW caught up with her later in the month to reflect on the concert and what it took to get there. Scroll to the bottom to watch video highlights from the event.
Ian VanderMeulen: Congratulations on a great first concert. You must have been really happy with the turnout.
Patricia Glunt: I was really pleased, to be modest. I was expecting between 50 and 100 people and I think we got almost 150. All the publicity we got, the support of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group. We were on TV channel NY1, we were in the local papers, it was like, “The orchestra is coming! The orchestra is coming!” It just took off on such a level, the publicity on it, I didn’t expect that. I don’t know what I expected but I didn’t expect that. So the fruits of the labor really paid off on the first one.
VanderMeulen: How did the orchestra get started and how did you get involved with the Jackson Heights Beautification Group?
Glunt: Well, I knew that I wanted to start an ensemble. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it always seemed like something was getting in my way. And now that I’m retired, it’s time. I knew from talking to other people who’ve started orchestras that one of the things you need is an organization to back you. And so I approached Ed Westley from the Jackson Heights Beautification Group and asked what he thought of the idea of starting an orchestra, and he picked up on it immediately. Because as an individual, I might have a vision of what I wanted to do, but people didn’t know me personally to open up doors for me. We have free space at the Methodist Church for rehearsal; I wanted to make sure we umbrella under another organization for liability insurance. You know there were just some logistical things that I knew I needed another organization to work under, and also eventually to be able to apply for grants if we decide to go in that direction. I needed to be attached to somebody who was already established. But at times, every Tuesday night rehearsal, it felt like, “Is anybody going to show up?”
We have a small core group right now. If I grow it by about five people after each concert, people who are really interested and dedicated to making music together on some level, I think it’ll be a pretty solid ensemble in a couple of years, and really be part of the community and be able to play for events, outdoor events in the summertime or in celebration of something. So I’m really excited about the potential of what it can be and I don’t really think that there are any limitations except perhaps not having enough help. It’s hard to do all the administrative things and the artistic things. At the beginning it more or less falls on my shoulders because there are certain things that I don’t want to take for chance. I want to make sure that when I first present a package, that it’s a whole package. There have been a lot of people who’ve offered to help, and I just need to make sure that the right people do the right job. Former New York State Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette was at the concert, and his wife approached me afterwards talking about helping in whatever way possible. She’s a great political connection. Danny Dromm, our Councilman, was there. I had told him of the idea in June when Ed and I were still finalizing the Beautification Group’s commitment. He circulated the concert information on his e-list, so I’m sure that helped. There were so many people involved in so many different kinds of support, and it’s only the beginning.
“I’ve seen bits and pieces of some chamber ensembles trying to get going. But what I’ve noticed is they’re not about the community. They come into the community and then they leave. And I think that when you have a neighborhood like this, it has to come from within.”
VanderMeulen: Is there anything about Jackson Heights in particular that seemed to indicate a desire for an orchestra, or capacity support one?
Glunt: Jackson Heights has theater, dance, a lot of visual art. But the music end has been really missing. I’ve seen bits and pieces of some chamber ensembles trying to get going. But what I’ve noticed is they’re not about the community. They come into the community and then they leave. And I think that when you have a neighborhood like this, it has to come from within, from within each community group. And I think with me living in the community this orchestra is just different because it’s coming from within, and it’s part of a community rather than someone from outside. When I proposed the orchestra, I didn’t really think about whether the community needed one or not, it was just something I wanted to do. But maybe they’ve realized that they do need one because they’re really excited about it!
VanderMeulen: What are some of your impressions from the concert?
Glunt: Well, I think we made a really good impression. It exceeded most people’s expectations—that’s the feedback I got. Musically speaking, I think there were some really beautiful moments. You could hear the silence in the audience, that they were just so focused on what was happening. So that was really cool. I think there were some really beautiful moments, especially in the Holst, and there were some really gorgeous moments in “O, Holy Night” and “Gates of Bambino.” The Respighi was the weakest. But the night of the performance was the first time that we were all in the same place at the same time. We had never been all together for the dress rehearsal, I was missing my first trumpet player and my horn player, and the first clarinet had been out on a business trip. So all things considered, it went really well. Were there moments when I thought things could fall apart? Sure! I think part of the process of learning what to do with this is I had skipped one rehearsal because it was on election night, and then we’d lost the week before because of Hurricane Sandy. So I lost two rehearsals out of my eight that I had scheduled. So now, as the organizer and the conductor I’ve decided on no weeks off. Everybody is going to be out some week for whatever reason. I don’t care if it’s Valentine’s Day, there’s going to be a rehearsal every Tuesday, and if they can’t make it, I’ll deal with that.
“I really want to bring in the community and do a lot of showcasing of talent, and also give people the masterworks to sink their teeth into.”
VanderMeulen: So what are the next steps? What are your goals?
Glunt: Right now, I’ve got the March 6 concert scheduled, and the next one I have sort of sketched out in my mind for the middle of May. So I want to do two more concerts, establish ourselves. I’m hoping for a little bit more consistency from the players, for them to start working a little bit harder now that they’ve had some experience. One of the violinists, she hadn’t picked up a violin in 20 years before she came to the first rehearsal! She had called me and said, I really don’t want to audition, but can I sit in the back of the violin section. And I just got an email from her yesterday saying she wants to go to a chamber music camp in California next summer and would I give her a reference. How cool is that? That she was challenged to go from not opening up that instrument case, to two months later playing a concert, and now she wants to get that all back again! I hope that they will learn how important it is to work on their parts a little bit more, so that they will feel more confident when they play the concerts. That’s my goal: give them more confidence, give them some repertoire they can play and sink their teeth into and have some fun doing and be proud of the job that they can do. That’s from the orchestra standpoint.
Down the line there are two major projects that I would really like to incorporate. One, I would like to have a composition competition strictly for Queens residents, and two, some sort of a concerto competition for kids who are maybe 14 to 18 to play with the orchestra and have a cash prize. Those are two things we could really implement, maybe not both in the same year but alternate years. And of course the overall vision is always to promote local talent, so I have a baritone in Jackson Heights who’s booked as our next soloist. Somewhere down the line I do want to bring in some Indian music, crossover music, Latin American music. I have a friend who just started a children’s chorus in [nearby] Corona and her specialty is folksongs, children’s folksongs from Latin America. So I could foresee doing a joint concert together. I really want to bring in the community and do a lot of showcasing of talent, and also give people the masterworks to sink their teeth into. I hope that it just becomes a real positive core element in the community. I think we’re off to a good start.