Before almost every performance you can find Chris Bergeron, Conductor and Music Director for the New Orleans Volunteer Orchestra, in the bowels of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. “Well, what’s he doing there?” you might ask—frantically pacing? Finishing a new arrangement at the last minute? Consulting the advice of long dead classical music greats via a Jackson Square tarot card reader?
Not exactly. Bergeron says he’s probably cracking jokes with his Concert Master Jennifer Waldron and planning a grand entrance. “I always like to add some suspense before coming out. I’ll come out a little bit late and the audience is kind of wondering, ‘Oh! Where’s the conductor?’” When he finally does appear though, it’s always with a big smile.
And there is plenty to smile about. This Friday (October 14) marks the beginning of NOVO’s fifth season, where they’ll be performing the famous Mozart Symphony No. 40, as well as musical selections from the work of Hayao Miyazaki – a Japanese director best known for animated films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. And there’s plenty more to come this year and next, including a choir concert the following week (October 22) and a Christmas performance in early December. Even with all the exciting challenges ahead, Chris has never forgotten how the volunteer orchestra began.
“It was started by me and Joseph Cieslak,” says Bergeron, referring to NOVO’s Co-Director and Choir Master, “We were both classmates and we both just had a deep love for classical music. It was my junior year at Loyola [University] in 2012 when we started NOVO.” With the idea in hand, the soon-to-be founders reached out to their classmates to see if they would be interested in participating in a once-a-week get together to rehearse as a tiny community orchestra. “We started with fifteen people, fifteen friends…and every week it kind of caught on and grew and grew and grew.”
Now, the orchestra has around 60 members and is the largest volunteer orchestra in the entire Gulf Coast region.
“We never expected it to be this huge. And now we just kind of got thrown into this conducting classical music world, and it’s been the most awesome rollercoaster.” In 2015, they even decided to introduce a choral component, under the guidance of Cieslak, called the Voices of New Orleans (or VONO) which adds a new dynamic to the group’s output. “We can do big orchestral and choir pieces [and] can do more concerts a year.”
And they’re always looking for new recruits for both orchestra and choir. “We basically allow anybody that has a passion and a love for the music,” Bergeron says, though he admits it’s a bit harder for beginners to join the orchestra because they need their own instrument and have to be able to read music to some level. “We do try to include everybody. We say, ‘Come! Try it out!’ If you can hang, we would love to have you. [Or], if you would rather wait a semester and practice a little bit, come back [after].” Cieslak has even started hosting theory and music education classes before rehearsals to help out choir members who are untrained or just need a refresher.
Bergeron and Cieslak started conducting only a few years ago, but they’ve managed to make a name for themselves both in the city and in various musical circles. Both were invited to join the Bard Conservatory’s Conductor’s Institute where only 25 young conductors from all over the world are invited to study conducting at the highest level. They also are both challenging the traditional role and perception of what a conductor is and can be.
“You see the conductor’s face on the CD, you know…and you have like their version of Beethoven or their version of Mozart,” says Bergeron, who doesn’t believe in the cult of the so-called celebrity conductor, “To me [it’s] just another part of the orchestra, just another musician. Ultimately, it is the conductor’s interpretation of the music that the orchestra goes with, but to reach that interpretation we don’t do it out of fear or fussing at anybody. We kind of just explain what we want and we talk about it with the musicians, get their opinions on it and then we all come up with a conclusion.”
“I really listen to my musicians! What they think, so…If you’re not going to listen to your musician’s and you don’t care what they have to say, I mean, that’s just kind of sad because it isn’t a group, volunteer activity at that point anymore.”
NOVO has always had a penchant for mixing up traditional notions of what an orchestra should be. From classical standards such as Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus or sections of Mozart’s Requiem to more nuanced and populist choices like a medley of the popular British television Dr. Who and music from the video game cult classic Chrono Trigger, variety from across the musical spectrum has always been a goal.
“So we get the young people in with our Legend of Zelda’s,” laughs Bergeron, “And then we’ll play some classical…some Mozart [or] some Beethoven. So they get exposed to both types of music.”
“So that’s one way we’ve been able to get a lot younger people in the audience and make classical music more relevant in everyone’s life. You know, not just the stereotypical classical music fan, but to everybody.”
They even had a concert centered on the popular video game Super Smash Brothers Brawl. “That was our first concert that we brought in this huge giant projector, and we had the game system there, and we had audience members come and play the game while we were playing the music for the game,” says Bergeron, adding that it was one of the favorite things he’s conducted.
“We have a concert for everybody; we strive to entertain. That’s one thing about our concerts: you will be entertained…I guarantee that. “
When he’s not practicing or performing with NOVO, Bergeron is at his day job teaching music at an elementary school in St. Tammany Parish where he also conducts the fifth-grade band. “It’s so nice to work with the little kids and set their foundation for music. I tell them you should aspire to be a doctor, aspire to be a lawyer, aspire to be a musician,” he says, with a chuckle. “So I kind of put that in the same category as some [other] great things in life. If you work hard, you stay in school, you can do things – like conduct an orchestra. And they all love it, they all eat it up.”
The New Orleans Volunteer Orchestra performs Friday, October 14 at 7:30pm at the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church (7100 St. Charles). General admission is $10, Military/Students for $8, and it’s free for children. The Voices of New Orleans perform next Saturday, October 22 at 7:30pm at the same location and admission is free. More information about NOVO and VONO can be found at their website www.novorchestra.com.