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A Tribute to Catherine Orr

Catherine Orr. Photo by Annie Tiberio Cameron.
Catherine Orr. Photo by Annie Tiberio Cameron.

Editor’s Note:

The final event of the Capital City Concerts 2014-2015 season will be dedicated to Catherine Orr, whose contributions to musical life in this part of Vermont spanned more than 30 years.

In mid-April I heard from Karen Kevra, artistic director of the Capital City Concert series. She asked me to talk with Orr and write a story that would describe the concert on May 16. I talked with Orr by phone about two weeks ago and she told me about some of the highlights of her musical life here.

Then a few days ago, sadly, I learned that Orr had died.  Later, I read the tenderly-worded message from the Unitarian Church of Montpelier sharing with members and friends of the church the news of her death. In part, this is what that church message said.

Sad News

Our beloved Director of Music, Catherine Orr, passed away just before midnight on Thursday, April 30. She died peacefully at home with her husband, Bill, and three of her brothers by her side.  She had been under hospice care since Monday.  We extend our love and sympathy to her family.

A Phone Conversation with Catherine Orr

On April 21 I asked Orr to reflect on her work. “What has meant the most to you?” I asked.

“I have been thinking about this for the past couple of years,” she said. “Supporting other musicians,” was her answer. “I support musicians from the very best to the very poorest.”  These musicians were orchestra and chorus members, sometimes soloists. “It’s sort of a juggling and balancing act to assess the person’s capabilities and find a good place for them in what they are doing,” she said.

For more than 40 years, Orr was active in the musical life of this community. She was conductor of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra and for the past 20 years was director of music at the Unitarian Church.  “With the church,” Orr said, “I get to choose choir members and support them.”

“Can they sing?”  That’s a first question Orr would ask. Then there’s the follow-up, “Do you want to sing?” If the nod is yes, Orr would say, “Let’s give it a try. And see if it works.  That gives me great joy. “People say to me, ‘Without you, I would never have sung.’ She may not have the greatest voice. But she’s there and she’s singing away.”

It was the same way when Orr conducted the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. “We came to know each other and we got to know their strengths and weaknesses. I always had this thought in my head and it was a little goofy. Whoever is going to be the right person, is going to show up.  And they do.”

One of the more life-changing — and thrilling — moments in Orr’s life came as a personal response to the liberation of people behind the Iron Curtain when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Now, dial back the time clock. “I was a super-Catholic until I was 30,” Orr said. As part of her Catholic service, she went to Vienna and studied. “I was in the church music department — studying piano, voice and organ.  That was 1970 and 1970 was the big 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.  So we were doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Then Orr came back to this country and we pick up her story once again in 1989 and 1990.

“When the Berlin Wall fell, I was conducting the Barre Choraleers. I hadn’t chosen a piece for their April and May concert, but the music that stood out to me was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”  It was that symphony that Orr felt did justice to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But putting together performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was a formidable task involving an orchestra, a chorus and soloists.

“I can’t tell you how many people tried to talk me out of it — including the board of the Barre Choraleers. We had to hire people and pay them good money. I was working at National Life as a technical writer for computer software. I was doing this on the side.”

“Jim Lowe (The Times Argus music and arts critic) helped me find Larry Reid as our concertmaster.  Then we had to hire people.”  Orr turned to a friend who helped her find the orchestra members.  Singers from five separate choirs made up the 92 singers needed for the Ninth Symphony choir.  “For soloists, we had Lisa Jablow, Priscilla Maggalo and Arthur Zorn singing bass.”  Then, fretting a little, Orr said, “I’m forgetting the tenor, a very fine tenor, a gorgeous tenor.”

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Orr’s direction was practiced in January 1990 and then performed on April 8 at the Alexander Twilight Auditorium in Lyndonville and then on April 9 at the Barre Opera House. Said Orr, “We had sold-out crowds at both places.”

“We contacted the six countries that had been liberated,” Orr said. Two men from East Germany came up to Vermont and made a formal presentation of their flag. “We sang all the music in German,” Orr said. “The consul from East Germany was impressed that we would sing it in German.”

The event surpassed expectations.  “People were really excited.  The audience was thrilled.  It was just a big thing.  People came from all over Vermont,” Orr said.

When the excitement from the performances died down, Orr turned to her husband, Bill Orr, and said, “So what are we going to do now?”

“That’s when I said maybe I should go to school.”  And “school” was the orchestral conducting program at the world-famous Jacobs School of Music at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University. Orr was 52 when she and her husband ventured forth to Indiana University.

“Taxing and very difficult” were the words Orr chose to describe her conducting studies at the Jacobs School of Music. But she plunged in and reveled at the opportunity to study with the likes of faculty members Jan Harrington and Thomas Dunn. Harrington’s conducting revealed the importance of shaping the musical phrases, and rhythm and sub-rhythms.  “He was fabulous — right.  He was excited and thrilled to be teaching.”

Then Orr came under the spell of Thomas Dunn, the conductor of the world-famous Boston Handel and Haydn Society. “He liked me. I was old enough to have studied Latin. That was neat. Dunn had his students diagramming Latin to help them see where the important Latin words are place in a phrase.  Dunn wanted the minimum from the conductor. Not flamboyance. Instead he wanted all that energy going into the singing and playing of the music. “Whenever he conducted, we were gorgeous,” Orr said.

Orr came aboard as director of music at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier in 1994. At that point, she remembered, the plaster ceiling in the church sanctuary was coming down. “It had big cracks in it.”  Then there was the historic organ. “The organ bellows were being taped together.” And, said Orr, “We had an upright piano on wheels that was hard to play.”

Over the 20 years of her service as music director, things improved. Church member Paula Gills took a bequest from her father to buy a new piano for the church. The ceiling was repaired.  The shape of the church sanctuary was returned to an arch — its historic form. “The acoustics are better,” Orr said.  “I was there for all of that.”

Orr’s unflagging inspiration and support to the singers and musicians she worked with — that continued, never quit. I told Orr about a memory of  hearing her talk about Mozart — expressing a love for Mozart’s music that was part enthusiasm and part wonder and veneration.

“It’s something to conduct Mozart,” she said.  “That’s a big part of what I do.  I fall in love with the music.  And then I teach it and then they fall in love with the music.  That’s what I do.”

by Nat Frothingham

May 16 Concert Features Quintet Masterpieces of Brahms and Shostakovich

Capital City Concerts will be dedicating its final concert of the 2014-2015 season to the memory of Catherine Orr.

The concert is set for Saturday evening, May 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier.

“Five’s the Charm” is the theme of the May 16 concert — referring to the five notable musicians who will perform what is being described as “two of the masterpieces of the piano quintet literature by Brahms and Shostakovich.”

More specifically, the two piano quintets are the Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34 by Johannes Brahms and the Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

New York City violinist Laurie Smukler who is remembered for leading “an unforgettable performance last season of the Schubert Two Cello Quintet” will lead the performers in the Brahms and Shostakovich quintets.

In addition to Smukler the four other performers are:  Violinist Emily Daggett Smith, violist Doris Lederer, cellist Natasha Brofsky and Canadian pianist Jane Coop.

The final offering at the May 16 concert will feature flutist Karen Kevra, the founder and artistic director of the Capital City Concerts, playing the Theme and Variations for Flute and Strings, op. 80 by Amy Beach.