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The Northern Lights Orchestra is composed of 35 musicians that range from professional musicians and music teachers to students from Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. Chris Hosmer is the music director. Each season, the orchestra tailors its music to a certain theme. These have included classical music, movie soundtracks, and North Country composers. The music is designed to please both long-time classical music fans as well as people who have never heard an orchestra perform before.
It is the orchestra’s fourth season, and this year’s theme is “Fiddler’s Journey.” David Katz is the string bass player in the orchestra as well as its manager, and he has been involved with the orchestra since its inception. He said, “The music that we’re basing this year’s concert on is fiddle tunes. Any fiddlers around here or anyone who plays penny whistle or goes to contra dances or square dances or anything like that will recognize many of the melodies that we’re doing this year.”
“In addition to traditional American fiddle tunes, we have some traditional American folk tunes, some Québécois tunes, and some folk melodies from western Europe as well,” said Katz. “People will recognize the melodies but they probably won’t have heard them played the way we’re going to play them.”
Katz explained that the orchestra took the original melodies and orchestrated them for a full string section and a growing woodwind section and said, “For instance, in addition to just hearing the melody played traditionally by a violin or a penny whistle, this year you can hear it orchestrated in four-part harmony for four clarinets or three-part harmony for three flutes, or eight- or ten-part harmony with counterpoint for the entire orchestra.”
According to Katz, there will also be short stretches where fiddle melodies will be played as a fugue. These unconventional arrangements of traditional pieces will characterize the orchestra’s performances this season. “It’s a new twist. We like doing that; we like introducing new ideas to our audience while at the same time presenting music that is going to ring a bell when they hear it,” said Katz.
Fiddle tunes tend to resonate with local audiences due to the high number of resident string players in the area and the popularity of activities such as contra dances. Katz says that approximately half of the orchestra’s violinists are accomplished fiddle players and perform fiddle music locally with small groups.
“Playing is always a joy for me, regardless of what ensemble is, but in particular what I like about playing in the Northern Lights orchestra is we’re small enough that the ensemble is small enough that it has a group cohesiveness to it that is sometimes hard to get in larger ensembles,” said Katz. “I just like taking our music to new places, playing in new places and watching the audiences, watching the smiles on their faces and the tapping in their toes.”
Katz added that many of their audience members had never heard or been drawn to orchestral music before, and that introducing this music to new audiences was another aspect of his job that he appreciates.