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Queens Chronicle

Forest Hills Symphony celebrating 50 years of performances

The Hills are alive with music

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Posted: Thursday, June 5, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 12:36 pm, Thu Jun 12, 2014.

“When you have quarter notes, you start playing faster. Try to pull back a little."

“The tempo is picking up and picking up and picking up. It sounds nice, but I’m getting worried."

“Remember, at the concert, I’m not going to be able to slow you down.”

The words of advice come from Franklin Verbsky, music director and conductor of the Forest Hills Symphony Orchestra, as the group rehearses for its 50th anniversary concert, less than two weeks away at the time.

He goes on to remind his musicians of the effects that adrenalin can have come show time.

If the group’s guiding spirit for the past 44 years means Verbsky approaches his role much like a teacher, it’s not surprising, since he put in 33 years as a public school teacher before retiring in 1998.

He sees the orchestra as an opportunity to enhance the musical know-how of its members regardless of their age or experience.

The group was founded in 1964 and has been providing local, cost-friendly classical music concerts since.

Among its goals is to teach youngsters the skills necessary for eventual careers in music, while offering adults a place to improve upon their musicianship.

Over the years, many members of the orchestra have, in fact, gone on to professional schools and careers as musicians.

That and the half-century milestone would tend to indicate that the group has been doing something right, but Verbsky is not content to have his orchestra rest on its laurels.

He hopes to embark on a new program designed to improve members’ musical skills and, as a result, upgrade their product.

The Teacher and Section Leader Program would provide each section of the orchestra with a leader in the first chair position at every rehearsal.

These leaders would conduct sectional rehearsals to teach the finer points of performing. And, come concert time, they would add their playing skills.

The plan is to start with a core of 10 leaders spread throughout the different sections of the orchestra — five among the string players, two among the woodwinds, another two among the brass, and a percussionist.

But, according to Verbsky, “That costs more money than we have,” despite financial support from the city Department for the Aging, the office of Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz and public donations.

None of the musicians get paid, Verbsky said, so the major expenses are rent for rehearsal space and insurance, which total $7,000 per year.

Verbsky began his association with the orchestra at its inception, playing lead cello.

The group’s original base was in Bayside.

It since moved to spaces at both St. John’s University and LaGuardia Community College, and, in 1980, settled into its current home, Forest Hills Jewish Center.

Over the years, musicians as young as the age of 8 have performed with the orchestra, but Verbsky has seen a definite decline in the number of youngsters who get involved.

With rehearsals on Wednesday nights and school the next day, it becomes difficult, he said.

“The ways education has changed, the kids are overloaded.”

But the idea of creating music in a positive and social environment is particularly attractive to older musicians.

According to Verbsky, many of the players join the orchestra after years of musical inactivity.

“Work and family get in the way,” Verbsky said. “As they get ready to retire, they like to start playing again.”

With an older population, Verbsky has had to adapt his coaching methods.

“Sometimes the fingers don’t work as well, or there are vision problems,” he explained. “You have to work to bring everybody together. Sometimes that’s done with very quiet advice.

“In some cases, it’s ‘I’m having trouble with this. How do I practice this at home?’“

Much of his recent knowledge comes from his own experience.

Last year, he broke two fingers in a car accident, and spent six months in physical therapy.

He tells his musicians to do what he did during recovery:

“Do scales, start slow, give yourself that little push — that little challenge.”

Timpanist Renee Wachenheimer, a Forest Hills resident, has been a member of the group since 1990, despite being blind.

“I listen to the music and play by ear,” she said. “I listen to a record and try to play what I hear.”

Wachenheimer said she took piano lessons when she was young, but most of her playing skills are self-taught.

Her husband, Neal, is also visually impaired, but is also with the orchestra since 1986, playing violin.

Flushing’s Maria Koch plays the French horn but says, “I call it a baby tuba because nobody knows what a French horn is.”

She has played the instrument since her high school days. She said she took 20 or so years off to raise her children and picked up the instrument — the same actual one — again in 2001, when she joined the orchestra, in response to an advertisement in the Queens Chronicle.

“It’s a great feeling because you’re with other people who like music,” she said, pleased that “classical music isn’t dying.”

The program for the upcoming concert consists of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos; Beethoven’s Symphony #2 Op. 36; Schubert’s Music from “Rosamunde” (Overture & Ballet Music); and two waltzes by Ivanovici and Waldteufel.

Forest Hills Symphony Orchestra
When: Sunday, June 8, 2 p.m.
Where: Forest Hills Jewish Center, 106-06 Queens Blvd.
Tickets: $5; $3 for seniors, students

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