An Eichler Neighborhood Enjoys Its Local Orchestra

Lucas Valley Chamber Orchestra performs Mendelssohn at the community center. Photo by Frank LaHorgue

Eichler neighborhoods have always been known for the personalities they attract. As one of Joe Eichler’s former salesmen, Frank LaHorgue, once put it, original Eichler buyers often shared such “core tendencies” as adventurousness and creativity.

So it’s not surprising that at least one Eichler neighborhood has given birth to its own orchestra.

The Lucas Valley Chamber Orchestra, born in the Eichler neighborhood of Upper Lucas Valley three years ago, will play a concert Sunday, March 30, at Christ Presbyterian Church, not far from the neighborhood. They will perform a different program Sunday afternoon, April 13, in El Cerrito. Both are charitable benefits.

The orchestra, which was founded, LaHorgue says, by four of Upper Valley Lucas residents, today involves about 30 musicians who come from as far away as the East Bay. The founders, LaHorgue says, were himself, a French horn player; Mark Yanover, violin; Ruth Koenig, violin; and Jennie Gowan, viola.

“We have four retired MD's, a retired nurse, a couple of lawyers, a UC Berkeley professor, several string teachers, a retired teacher who plays jazz professionally, an architect, and on and on,” LaHorgue says.

LaHorgue, who also opens his home for chamber music ensemble rehearsals, is an artist in several fields, including photography. He produces “California Photography in Classic Black and White,” ranging from urban San Francisco to views of Marin and Petaluma and on to Bodie and Yosemite.

“The group is maturing and sounding better and working together,” LaHorgue says of the orchestra. “We’ve added some strong players.” The orchestra has also upped its schedule, from two performances its first year to three last year, and with five planned for the current season.

They rehearse four Tuesday mornings a month in the Upper Lucas Valley community center, which was built by Eichler as part of the community.

The musicians range from doctors to teachers to music teachers. Photo by Roger Freeburg

The way the group operates suggests something else about the personality of a typical Eichler owner – and it clearly says much about the personality of Frank LaHorgue, who has lived in three different Eichler homes during his lifetime.

An emphasis on independent thinking.

Unusually, the orchestra does not have a conductor. (In this way it is like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York and the New Century Chamber Orchestra in the Bay Area.) “We work without the benefit, if you call it that, or the disadvantage, of having a leader,” Mark Yanover says.

“Almost everybody in the orchestra are chamber music players, so they’re used to playing without a conductor,” LaHorgue says. “Of course it is challenging being an orchestra of our size. Rehearsals can be chaotic. But to put something together like this that is totally collaborative is really fun.”

“We all participate in critiquing,” Yanover says. “We all stop and say, ‘no, this is not going right.’” The group’s concertmaster, violinist Bonnie Rasmussen, is the closest they have to a conductor, starting off each piece and offering guidance.

“It’s fun participating in the direction [of the music],” Yanover says, “versus having a conductor who tells us his or her vision.”

Playing without a conductor does make it  more difficult to tackle the entire repertoire, LaHorgue says.

“When an orchestra operates this way, we really are best off playing things that Hyaden and Mozart wrote, and playing other music from that era,” he says. The upcoming concerts feature Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Hayden. “When you start getting to Mahler, you have tempo changes all over the place. It’s really too complex.”

Besides lacking a conductor, the chamber orchestra lacks a president, a board of directors, nonprofit status, or a website.

“I take the main lead in administration,” LaHorgue says. “I push for consensus. People are getting used to speaking up and getting more involved.”

In a way, the leader-less nature of the group relates to LaHorgue’s appreciation of direct democracy.

“In my political view of things, people in the United States have forgotten how to participate. They all are so used to being told what to do. At work their boss tells them what to do. They are always being told what to do.”

“There is nothing more gratifying than getting together and collaborating with your friends. It’s a form of communication,” he says. “It goes beyond what words can say.”

“Who wants to have fun under a CEO?”

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