NRO celebrates 50 years
June 18, 2009
After a score of triumphs, financial challenges, homes and name changes, the National Repertory Orchestra (NRO) celebrates its 50-year anniversary – beginning with tonight’s season opener.
Walter Charles founded the orchestra, then called the Blue Jeans Symphony, in 1960 in Estes Park. The orchestra moved to Evergreen in 1966, changing its name to the Colorado Philharmonic. Though the Evergreen community supported the orchestra for 20 years, musicians continued to perform in the local junior high school, while staying in “living conditions that could only be generously called ‘rustic,'” said conductor Carl Topilow.
When Keystone welcomed the orchestra to town, the group made music in a tent at the base of the mountain until 1992, when it moved to its current home, the Riverwalk Center.
Despite moves and financial ups and downs, the NRO – which auditions about 800 young musicians a year and culls 87-89 to learn and perform an entire season’s orchestral repertoire (29 concerts) in eight weeks – has trained more than 4,000 musicians for a professional career in music. It also is the only United States orchestra invited to perform at the 1988 Seoul, South Korea Olympic Arts festival.
“Somehow, this orchestra has been going under a guiding light,” Topilow said. “Whenever we struggled, people stepped up to the plate. It’s one of the organizations that has restored faith in young people and what is possible.”
And, indeed, the young people selected to the NRO end up earning positions with the best orchestras worldwide.
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Topilow, who conducts the orchestra at Cleveland Institute of Music and Cleveland Pops Orchestra when he’s not in Breckenridge, travels worldwide as a guest conductor. Last week, he ran into two cellists working professionally in Missouri who met in the NRO 20 years ago, married and now have kids. He regularly discovers NRO alumni in top orchestras, including the Dallas, New York and Philadelphia symphonies. In fact, the only orchestra he hasn’t found NRO alumni – yet – is in the Czech Republic.
This summer, he’s bringing back some of the most prominent alumni, including Richard Killmer, the first NRO oboist ever, and Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist from the New York Philharmonic.
Oscar Soler, a native of Venezuela, joins the orchestra as concertmaster after falling in love with his first season with the NRO last year.
“What I find most attractive about the orchestra is they are a very nice group of people,” he said. “Already, we have a great bond with each other (which) makes the music better.”
And, as always, Topilow will guide audiences unfamiliar with orchestral music through pieces that “pique the imagination,” by pointing out fun sounds to listen for and composers’ thoughts and circumstances.
After 32 years conducting the NRO, the process still thrills him.
“I’m performing the greatest music ever written,” he said, “and to pass along any experience and insight I might have into those pieces is plenty rewarding.”