September 2024 will mark the start of the String Orchestra of the Rockies’ 40th season!

For 40 years the String Orchestra of the Rockies has been Montana’s premier conductorless string orchestra. This critically acclaimed ensemble draws 15 of the finest string players from the state of Montana and features world-class soloists on a four-concert season at UM. Musicians rehearse in a collaborative effort that enables each player to have an impact on the artistic process. Performing without a conductor, they rely upon the individual expertise of the musicians to create a cohesive, dynamic sound. Many world-renowned guest artists have shared the stage with SOR, resulting in a musical collaboration that is absolutely thrilling for the concert audience. In addition to these exceptional performances, SOR continues its commitment of giving back to the community by offering master classes taught by these fine artists and side-by -side performance opportunities for exceptional young high school and university students. The orchestra has been heard across Montana on network television’s People and Places Under the Big Sky, on NPR’s Performance Today, as well as regional tours across Montana and Washington.

String Orchestra of the Rockies Mission Statement

The String Orchestra of the Rockies mission is to enhance and enrich the cultural climate of the Montana region by providing classical string music of the highest caliber and to support music education programs for young string players.

String Orchestra of the Rockies Board of Directors

The String Orchestra of the Rockies Board of Directors meets regularly to provide oversight and management. 

Meet the Board of Directors and the others who help behind the scenes.

It was, by all accounts, a near-death experience: Not even two years after the String Orchestra of the Rockies gave its first performance, a half-dozen people—virtually all that remained of the orchestra and its board of directors—gathered in the living room of cellist Fern Glass Boyd’s four-plex apartment and wondered whether they should end it all.

Orchestra founders Sarah Avery and Russell Guyver, the dynamos who’d whooshed into town like a firestorm charging up musicians with notions like conductor-free performing and getting paid for their work, had moved to Alaska. The board of directors had all but dissolved. The excitement that had catalyzed the players, the supporters and the audiences only eighteen months earlier had fizzled, replaced by doubt. Could the orchestra survive these losses? Should it even start another season?

Losing Avery and Guyver was a major blow. “It was really their baby,” Boyd says of the string group. The newlyweds, who’d met while playing in orchestras in Venezuela, had been traveling the West in search of a home where they could start a conductor-less string orchestra, and had settled on Missoula.

“We put them up for a while,” recalls Mavis McKelvey, “and we discouraged them in every way, shape, and form.” She laughs. “It’s such a small community, and they had such grandiose ideas.” The couple dreamt of world fame, and, when McKelvey suggested a bigger city such as Portland, Ore., they headed west—only to return to Missoula ten days later with a determination to start their string group here.

Before long, they had cellists Boyd and Christine Ranf, bassist Don Beller, and violinists Walter Olivares and Madeline McKelvey as enthusiastic about the notion as they were.

“They really were charismatic,” Madeleine McKelvey says. “I think we all jumped on board before we’d even heard them play. They were so enthusiastic and charismatic and so devoted to this idea.”

“We came with an idea, and little else,” Guyver says from his home in Greeley, Colo. “We thought the nicest thing to do would be to start an orchestra with no conductors. We’d played in too many orchestras. We were really sick of them.”

Artistic control was their primary motive, Avery says: “Cooperative solutioning” allows every musician in the group a say as to a piece’s tempo, or its bowing, or how loudly or softly it should be played. And, yes, finding consensus among twelve to fifteen musicians has been tricky at times, to say the least.

“We all grew up playing in orchestras with conductors, so it was a new thing—innovative, artistically rewarding,” Olivares says. “There were moments when things got controversial.”

One major challenge, says violinist Colleen Hunter: “Learning how to communicate with each other in positive and affirming ways.” She slants a sly smile.

Yet the idea was an exciting one from the very start. Avery and Guyver borrowed the concept from a group in London, where they’d lived for several years, and their enthusiasm infected nearly everyone they talked to, it seemed.

“Everything they said was something that resonated for me,” Boyd says. “I was captivated.”

“They’d go to a grocery store and meet some people, and suddenly we’d have a new board member,” says Madeline McKelvey. Asked to perform at a funeral, she referred the job to Guyver, she says—who came back with some money, which he needed badly, as well as a commitment from the priest, Ed Stupca, to sit on the board of directors.

People liked the couple’s egalitarian approach, not only to the performances but also to the music and its audiences, Boyd says. Avery and Guyver spoke of quality music for the common soul.

“In the early ’80s, it was a unique idea about how to sell classical music,” she says. “Classical music enthusiasts admired elite art. Russell and Sarah, they just wanted to crash all those barriers.”

That was one reason behind the explanatory talks accompanying each piece the orchestra would perform. At the same time, the players would deck themselves out in formal evening wear: “The tails made it more special; more elegant. The talking made it less highbrow,” says Johann Jonsson, an original member of the orchestra and its artistic director since Guyver’s departure.

The orchestra transcends other kinds of boundaries, as well—including geographical ones. Jonsson, a music professor at Montana State University, came from Bozeman to rehearse and perform with the group, and over the years players from Great Falls, Spokane, Kalispell, and Billings have joined, as well.

The intrastate approach was a necessity at first; there simply weren’t enough quality, professional players in Missoula to fill out a full string orchestra. That has changed, but the group’s geographical diversity has not: Members say they relish the opportunity to play and learn from, a variety of musicians.

“It was an opportunity not to be such a provincial place,” Boyd says. “That’s how they (Avery and Guyver) envisioned it, always: not just a Missoula group, but a Montana group. It was so stimulating!”

The original, core group, however, were Missoulians through and through—seven musicians with a dream to share. To drum up support for their cause, they gave a chamber music concert in late 1984 in the Art Museum of Missoula. It was the Christmas season, Mavis McKelvey remembers, and no one knew what would happen.

“We set up chairs in the main gallery for about forty people, and we were swamped,” McKelvey says. “I mean, hundreds of people came!” (According to a newspaper report, 131 attended.) “They sat on the stairs going upstairs; they sat on the floor, everywhere. We had candles and punch and cookies. It was so moving. Suddenly there was this outpouring, and we knew there was an audience here that was eager to have this kind of music.”

There were doubters, however, who wondered how a town the size of Missoula—about 35 percent fewer people lived in the area then, according to U.S. Census figures—could support another classical music group. Missoula already had a symphony, people pointed out.

“Not everyone was for the idea,” Olivares says. “We were the visioners, but doors didn’t open automatically, so you had to fight. You had to struggle, like anything that is new.

“Some people might have questioned, `Are you going to make it? Do we have the interest in the public?’ That interest grew little by little, based on the quality of the music, the love for what we did, and the perseverance of the core players.”

“There was a lot of skepticism back then about starting up another musical group and being part and parcel of such an effort,” says Dr. Peter Phillips, the orchestra’s first board president, now retired and living north of Seattle. “There were so many good artistic endeavors going on in Missoula at the time. There was a lot of activity going on, and people were stretched in terms of donating their time and donating their money.”

Former president Robert Chaney, on the board in 1988-90, remembers approaching business owners for sponsorships and hearing them decide to give their symphony money to the string orchestra, instead. Chaney, though, would have none of it: “I’d say, `Don’t you dare! They were there first.’ ” Most of the time, those business owners would pony up cash donations for both organizations, he says.

From the start, the orchestra struggled—to pay its musicians (a very small stipend), to buy music, to pay soloists (much less than they were used to getting). But the dean of UM’s School of Fine Arts, Sister Kathryn Martin, helped immensely, arranging to lend the Music Recital Hall free of charge for performances and finding work on campus for both Avery and Guyver.

Energized by the response to their art museum concert, though, the core group reached out and pulled in players from all around to perform in a new way—without a conductor—and to play music written especially for string orchestras.

“There was a whole bunch of music out there that wasn’t being played,” recalls violinist Walter Olivares, now teaching and conducting at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. “It was a new repertoire that we presented to people.”

For its debut concert Feb. 17, 1985, the orchestra’s twelve players offered the music of Vivaldi, Elgar, and Bach. Tickets cost six dollars: “Very low so that anybody could come,” Avery says. “We figured, they can go to the movies or they can come to hear the string orchestra.”

Money took a back seat to ideals, yet the orchestra at least once during those early years filled the Music Recital Hall—and then some. Mora Payne, an original board member, worked the gate for that concert, and she learned a valuable lesson, she says: “We turned away seventy-five people, and some of them were not very happy. That’s when I learned you can only sell your house.”

Yet people came back, again and again. The orchestra developed a “very regular, loyal audience,” recalls Guyver, that continues to this day.

“It’s a special thing,” violinist Colleen Hunter says. “The audience out there are old friends” who greet the orchestra with enthusiastic applause before they’ve played their first note. “The warmth of the applause is very special. You’re looking out there and smiling, and you’re picking out familiar faces.”

Strapped for cash—“We were scrapping for every penny that we could get from wherever, to make it go,” says Olivares—the orchestra relied on its own members’ talents that first year, eschewing soloists for the time being. The strategy worked: In a Bozeman concert, the orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony, Op. 110A” left its audience dumbfounded.

“It was an amazing experience,” Avery says. “Russell spoke about the piece … and then we played it—and then the audience was completely silent. That was kind of a goose-bump thing.”

One month after that Bozeman concert, a “chamber ensemble” sub-group of the larger orchestra gave a free performance under the Caras Park tent in Missoula. On the program: Mozart and Brahms.

“It was such an elegant concert,” Mavis McKelvey says. “It was so good. (Former mayor) Dan Kemmis was there. Sarah Avery was expecting her first child in early August, and Madeleine (McKelvey) was expecting twins coming in October—and both of them were enormous! But they were elegant. They got up in their maternity dresses, and they were playing away. I just remember it as being a very joyous occasion and they played beautifully. It was such a moving concert.”

Before the orchestra’s first full year was up, though, it had brought in a soloist: soprano Elisabeth Braden of the New York Opera performed with the orchestra, singing “Les Illuminations” by Benjamin Britten as well as soprano arias from Handel’s “Messiah.” Braden was a close friend of Avery’s, and so was willing to play in Missoula for practically nothing—plane fare plus $200 was what the orchestra paid in those days, Jonsson says.

Today, the price has gone up, but not by much: Guest soloists typically receive plane fare and $800, a pittance compared to the salaries they normally command, Jonsson says. “They come because of a personal connection,” he says. “We don’t get players from an artist’s agency.”

Over the years, players of nearly every instrument have guested with the String Orchestra of the Rockies, sometimes in unusual ways. Jonsson recalls a December 2000 concert featuring soprano Mary Logan Hastings: He played the first violin in a Vivaldi concerto and Hastings sang the other part, in syllables like a jazz “scat” singer.

Sometimes, though, the orchestra has had to stretch its resources to attract players. In 1993, with a budget of $20,000 to fund four concerts, the orchestra hired pianist Norman Kreiger of New York City to play Paul Hindemith’s “Theme and Variations: The Four Temperaments.” The cost: a $450 royalty in addition to Krieger’s expenses and stipend. “Spending our buffer,” Jonsson told the Missoulian at the time. It was worth it, Boyd says now.

“With his level of professionalism, he elevated the whole orchestra to his level,” Boyd says of Krieger. “It was one of the best concerts we’ve ever played.

“We also went into a financial hole that took us a year to get out of. It made me realize that we need to do that: We need to take risks if we’re going to continue to grow.”

Risk-taking? That’s standard operating procedure for the String Orchestra of the Rockies. Jonsson routinely includes 20th-century music in its programs, and the group has premiered several pieces including, in December 1986, “Inventions for 12 Solo Strings,” written by Guyver for the orchestra, and “Sumer is Icumen in: Have a God Day,” also by Guyver, at its 10th-anniversary concert.

The orchestra also commissioned a work by Missoula composer David Maslanka. “Music for String Orchestra” premiered Nov. 30, 1996, “a very wonderful piece,” Guyver says. “I just thought it was beautiful writing. I remember the last movement being fiendishly difficult. It’s an extremely lyrical piece; wonderful music.”

Yet there are limits to how far the orchestra will go. Jonsson’s approach to designing its musical programs is a three-legged one: incorporating old with new works, keeping the selections playable—as far-flung as it tends to be, the group gets a maximum of 10 hours’ rehearsal together before each performance; and keeping its audience in mind.

“They’re sophisticated; they know their music, but they would not stand for only difficult, avant-garde music,” Jonsson says. “If we did that, we wouldn’t have an audience.”

“You wouldn’t have an orchestra, either,” Boyd retorts.

It’s been a juggling act, at times, for musicians and board members alike, balancing the artistic inclinations of the musicians with the tastes of their audiences with the often harsh fiscal realities.

“We were very idealistic,” Avery says. “Money and art: I don’t think those two ideas were quite connected. What was driving it was idealism and optimism, and not any kind of reality.”

The disparities between financial goals and artistic ones made being on the board of directors a challenge for some—including Dr. Harold Braun, who served as president in 1986 and 1987, and who remembers well those dark times after Avery and Guyver left the state. The clincher—the glue that, at last, held the group together—was a newly acquired $10,000 coal tax trust fund grant, Boyd recalls.

“The coal tax grant was a great gift,” she said. “If we hadn’t had that grant, I don’t know if we would have survived… We just couldn’t let that ten thousand so wasted! It was a sign: We had to keep going. And we did. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.”

Not easy: That’s an understatement, as a glance at newspaper headlines will show. “Rockies Orchestra gets over jitters,” said the Missoulian in December 1985

—a great place to be, but it didn’t last long. “Financial woes hamstring future of orchestra,” read the headline a year later. By 1988, the newspaper announced, “Orchestra enjoys outlook for the future,” yet the group never ended a season in the black until 1989, when its credits exceeded its debits by a whopping $600.

Two years later, the orchestra began its new season “broke but optimistic,” the Missoulian reported. “It was kind of frightening going into the season not knowing if we could pay the players,” board member Allisen Justman was quoted as saying.

Turnover was another problem the orchestra faced. Musicians with full-time jobs and symphony schedules might have found it too grueling to make four-weekend trips to Missoula per season for marathon rehearsals, an evening performance, and then a return trip home early Monday morning. Whatever the reason, turnover was high in the orchestra’s early years, which made playing well together even more of a challenge, at times.

“There’s always an element of seeing each other for the first time,” Boyd said in 1990. “We’re never able to completely build on what we had from the beginning.”

Yet they persevered, winning grants to keep afloat, working with kids in local and rural schools, doing some limited touring—always an elusive goal for this group, whose members have longed from the very beginning to take their music to the state’s more isolated communities.

“There are lots of people out there who don’t have any idea of the music that we make and what it’s like,” double-bassist Don Beller says. “When they come, they’re amazed, and we have converts. This music has enriched our lives so much, we’d like to be able to do the same for as many of the people here as we can.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship, the asking of support from the community and the giving back of the gift of music to the community and, to individuals, homage.

Starting with a spring 1987 concert in honor of Gerald and Paroda Ann Doty, musicians both who started the first Suzuki String Program in Missoula, the orchestra periodically honors those who’ve made a difference in Missoula’s music community with concerts dedicated to them.

In 1992, the orchestra commemorated original member John Ellis, a keyboardist who’d also played the organ at the Wilma Theater, and who died in July 1992. Boyd, a close friend, performed Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in his memory.

In 1995, the orchestra devoted its fall concert to John Lester, a voice teacher at the University of Montana for 33 years. His daughter Joanna Lester and three other sopranos, Nancy Senechal Schulze, Twila Wolfe and Jeanne Couture Kostelic; Greg Devlin, tenor; and bass-baritone John Semmens sang to piano accompaniment by Dennis Alexander, Steve Riddle on bass and Rick Brinkman on drums.

Others they’ve honored include Guy Gebhardt of Plains, whose generous endowments to the orchestra beginning in 1998 have allowed the board to make investments and, in Jonsson’s words, “have an operations budget that’s operational.”

Mavis McKelvey remembers that concert well, when Gebhardt, in his jeans, plaid shirt, and suspenders, rose to accept the accolades of the orchestra and audience for his gift. “Such a nice, gentle kind of man,” she says. “Pure Montana. I thought, only in Montana can this happen, where a rancher gives this kind of money to a string orchestra.”

Most recently, the orchestra honored Missoula philanthropist Gilbert Millikan for his posthumous gift of $15,000 for touring. The April 2004 concert featured Paul Coletti, professor of viola and chamber music at UCLA, performing Bach’s “Concerto in E flat major, for Viola, Strings and Continuo.”

The gifts the orchestra has received over the last decade have allowed it to stop worrying about money and focus on what its members do best: play music. According to Robert Chaney, they do that pretty much the best of anybody around. “They’re so good, without question,” he says. “That’s the main reason I went to their concerts in the first place, and it’s the reason I still go.” “The quality of the orchestra has always been high,” Mavis McKelvey says. The orchestra’s main problem over the years, she says, has been attracting a big-enough audience.

That’s not the case anymore. As its caliber of musicianship has continued to rise and, McKelvey posits, the number of guest artists such as Ian Swenson and Amit Peled has increased, attendance has burgeoned in recent years and especially in recent months—selling out the Music Recital Hall and leading the orchestra and its board to wonder how to accommodate more listeners.

Increasing the number of concerts to two in a weekend is one possibility. Moving to a bigger venue is another. Each has its drawbacks—the loss of intimacy a bigger space would effect, for instance. “We love the Recital Hall because the acoustics are wonderful,” says Philip West, the current board president. “But when we like something as much as the String Orchestra, we want to share it.”

But with the orchestra on its financial feet, there are other, more pressing questions for the board to ponder—such as paying its regular musicians a better wage. That’s a priority for West, and it’s one he’s happy to be able to tackle at long last.

“We’ve had some bumps in the past,” he acknowledges. “But this year, especially, seems to have a good feeling.”

– end –

If you are interested in more history, or just want to know everything there is about The String Orchestra of the Rockies, you can now find the complete record archives in the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana, Missoula. Click here for a Guide to the Records.

Home and concerts page Mission Mountains image courtesy of Kerry Foresman
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