The Mesquite Symphony Orchestra is made up of volunteers from school children to senior citizens. But they all have one thing in common – a love of classical music. As part of KERA’s Your Town Texas series, KERA’s Stephen Becker reports that the groups helps to balance out Mesquite’s rodeo image:
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It’s opening night of the Mesquite Symphony Orchestra’s 24th season. As musicians warm up inside the city’s Arts Center, some of them wave from the stage to friends and family in the audience.
Backstage, a gala for season ticket holders features cake and punch served by this year’s symphony debutantes. The debs will be back at intermission to serve soft drinks from two-liter bottles for donations.
The symphony was formed in 1989. Jeann Wisenbaker was part of a team of Mesquite residents who started the group. Their reasons were simple.
WISENBAKER: “There was nothing to do here!”
Now, Mesquite arts lovers have plenty to do.
Mesquite may be better known for its rodeo. But it also has an arts center, which opened in 1995 a mile up North Galloway Avenue from City Hall. The arts center houses 16 arts groups, and Mayor John Monaco says the facility balances out the city’s cowboy image.
MONACO: “I tell folks when I’m traveling about our city of Mesquite: The bookends are on one end we have our arts center and our symphony orchestra and on the other end we have the rodeo. And everything in between, really.”
The symphony is the arts center’s largest group, with more than 70 members. The youngest are in middle school and have only been playing a few years. Then there are original members like cellist Jerry Waite. He had to think for a second about how long he’s been playing.
WAITE: “Well, since I was in high school. So that’d be … 70 years or more. 75 years?”
That gap in experience comes with plenty of opportunity for old and young.
Arvin Tsai is a Garland High School senior who plays the violin.
TSAI: “It’s harder music. You don’t get high-quality music like Beethoven symphonies or Tchaikovsky symphonies at the high-school level – very rarely. So this is a real opportunity to see what world-class symphonies get to play.”
The adult members may seem to have an advantage because they’ve been playing longer. But most of the students are in band or orchestra at school. And those school groups rehearse five days a week.
If there’s any friction between the kids and adults, it’s hard to find. Several students share music stands with section members three times their age. And the younger members are important for the group’s future.
Linda Youmans has played viola in the symphony for 21 years. She says having the student players around is comforting.
YOUMANS: “Just knowing that there are young people coming up who are going to continue playing in orchestras, so that the orchestra is not going to go away.”
The orchestra practices on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Wind players usually have to audition for a spot in the symphony. String players who show up to rehearsal and enjoy it can consider themselves members. All performers are volunteers.
This season includes eight performances. And the programs don’t just focus on the tried and true repertoire. This Saturday, the orchestra performs Mexican music. A March concert is devoted to music from cartoons. And the season opener featured the music of William Grant Still, the first African American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra.
Roger Gilliam has been the Mesquite Symphony’s music director for 18 years.
GILLIAM: “We have a lot of private teachers, a lot of band directors, people that are semi-professional or professional level players, but because of the music that we play, they like to play here. That’s one of the things that I believe strongly in is that you don’t play music down to the lowest level. You play to the highest level and encourage the lowest level to come up.”
Back inside the main performance hall in the Mesquite Arts Center, the last of the ticketholders file in ahead of the 7:30 start time. Meanwhile, Jeann Wisenbaker runs a table that sells Mesquite Symphony recordings and T-shirts.
She says all the effort she and others put into keeping the group running is helpful for those who don’t want to drive far for their classical music fix.
WISENBAKER: “Well, now we don’t have to go to Dallas for anything. We have everything here.”