The Highland Center in Monterey, Virginia, was filled to the brim with music lovers for the inaugural performance of the Highland Community Orchestra August 23. With standing room only, the audience was delighted by the three song performance by the orchestra, which consists of members from Highland and Bath counties in Virginia, and Pocahontas and Pendleton counties in West Virginia.
The ensemble is led by Gretta Sandberg, who retired to Highland County after 44 years as a public school music teacher in northern Virginia.
“We came down here, and we just fell in love with the area,” she said. “First of all, we fell in love with the beauty of the place and then we got to know the people and what kept us here were the people. It’s so beautiful and there are wonderful people here.”
In addition to teaching music, Sandberg is also a violinist and, when she retired, she knew music was not done with her, and she wasn’t quite done with it either.
“I thought to myself, ‘I just finished forty-four years, I think I know what I’m doing now, why would I stop at the top of my game?’” she said. “So I started a string program here and then it morphed into the Alleghany Mountain String Project sponsored under the Garth Newel Music Center.”
The pandemic put a stop to rehearsals and performances, but once life went back to normal, Sandberg decided to not just put a string orchestra together, this time, it would be a full orchestra full of community members.
“I put the word out and we started rehearsing the first week of July, and I pushed them to get ready for a concert toward the end of August,” she said. “They were shocked at how well they played, and I knew they could do it, they just had to be pushed to do it. We had a great crowd. Everybody had a good time – the audience and the orchestra.”
Among the orchestra members were eight Pocahontas Countians with varied backgrounds and lives, but with one thing in common – a love of music.
A Family Affair
Erica Marks and her daughters, Asa, 14, and Sal, 11, might literally have music in the blood. Erica and her husband, Paolo, both come from musical families and have raised their daughters to continue the family legacy.
Asa and Sal were students of Sandberg’s for years and when Erica heard about the orchestra, she said she thought it would be a great way for her and the girls to perform together.
“It was really fun,” Erica said. “I tried not to stare at them the entire time [we performed]. It was a dear sight for me seeing them sitting there, playing violin. I know it was a real stretch for them in the beginning. They really hadn’t read orchestral music before and it was just the two of them, I think, for the first rehearsal.”
Despite that, Asa and Sal were both first violins and quickly caught up with the rest of the orchestra.
“Asa and I were pretty much the whole first violin section, so that was pretty cool,” Sal said.
For Asa, “it felt normal to me,” to perform with an ensemble mostly consisting of adults.
“I thought it went really well,” she said. “I like classical music better.”
Also keeping music in the family is married couple Chuck and Heather Niday. Chuck plays the euphonium, and as Heather points out, he is the brass section of the orchestra. She, on the other hand, plays flute.
The couple met in 1987 in Richmond, Virginia, and it was music that brought them together.
They were both members of the Richmond concert band and got to know each other when members of the band went out after practice.
The band was preparing for a 4th of July performance at Dogwood Downs and was having more practices than usual. After one practice, Heather joined the group late at the bar they frequented and the only seat left was beside Chuck.
“We struck up a conversation and we’ve been talking ever since,” Heather said, laughing.
The couple continued performing with the group until they moved to Pocahontas County. They looked for other community bands to join, but they couldn’t find one nearby, until recently.
Heather, who is the program and news director for Allegheny Mountain Radio, said her ears perked up when she heard a story about the orchestra from a Highland County co-worker.
“I fired off an email to [Sandberg] and said we’ve been playing for years and years, and we would love the opportunity to play with an orchestra or just to play with another group of musicians again,” she said.
Although they have been playing for years, it took some time for the music to come back to them.
“We were pretty rusty when we started,” Heather said.
“Me especially,” Chuck added.
“It didn’t come back as quickly as I’d like,” Heather continued. “But it’s getting there. You go home with the overwhelming feel of ‘I’ve got to go home to practice so I don’t embarrass myself.’ Actually, I’m sitting next to Debbie Stevenson who has played professionally, so it’s a tad bit intimidating to sit next to her, but at the same time, she also pushes me to practice more so I can hold my head up.”
The nerves settled and the cobwebs fell away quickly as the couple got back into the groove, so to speak. They were reminded again of how much they enjoyed playing with a group.
“The first time I went to practice, I came home with this overwhelming feel of ‘oh my god, it feels so good to play with a group of musicians again,’” Heather said. “I missed it so much.”
‘Heard it through the grapevine’
As it goes in small towns, news about the newly formed orchestra spread and more musicians decided to join, such as Galen Watts, who learned about the ensemble from Chuck and Heather.
Watts is a member of the Elk River Ramblers and has been playing bass – upright or electric – for decades. He started at the age of 15 after two years of playing the trumpet, which he did not enjoy.
His mother was a music teacher and she talked to Watts’ instructor who suggested the bass. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I played with the school orchestra, community symphony, a couple chamber orchestras, was in some string quartets when they couldn’t find a cello player – all while I was in high school,” Watts said. “When I graduated high school, the school district took their upright bass back.”
Watts moved on to the electric bass, which is cheaper than an upright. He continued playing in college and into adulthood. A couple years ago, he decided he wanted to get back to his roots and bought an upright bass.
“One of the reasons I wanted to start playing upright bass again was to basically see if I could still do it after all these years,” he said. “I really did like playing in orchestras in high school. It’s a lot of fun to make music with a large group of people and everyone working toward the same goal.”
Watts was happy to find an orchestra to play with once again, although he did have to dust off an old talent of sight reading to learn the music.
“I hadn’t actually sight read music for forty-some years, so I had to knock the rust off of those neurons to get to the point where I could do that again,” he said. “That doesn’t actually take too long.”
Being able to once again perform in a large ensemble, Watts said he is grateful to Sandberg for organizing the group.
“I think Gretta is doing a great job,” he said. “She pulled this group together. I heard about it fairly late. I think they’ve been rehearsing since about June and I think we really surprised ourselves with how good we were at the concert.
“It didn’t feel like that going in,” he continued, “but when we got the people there and the lights on and everybody ready to perform, it all fell together. I think we sounded really good, at least from where I was sitting.”
Like Watts, Ben Lucacek found out about the orchestra through word of mouth and decided to get back to playing once again.
Lucacek, who is originally from Richmond, Indiana, learned to play cello when he was in elementary school and continued his musical education through school.
“I was in the honors orchestra and special strings,” he said. “They actually had four orchestras in the high school at that time. We had eighty-eight people in my orchestra.”
When Lucacek went into the military, he left behind his cello, picking it back up when he returned. He played occasionally with the pit orchestra for the local theater and with friends.
“I had a friend who played ukulele and he said, ‘nobody will play with me,’ and I said, ‘nobody will play with me, either,’” Lucacek recalled. “We got together and started playing on his front porch – just because.”
Lucacek moved to Green Bank in 2018 and has made friends with local musicians, finding time to join them occasionally to play a tune or two. Then he heard about the Highland Community Orchestra and knew it was time to join a bigger ensemble.
“I was happy to do it,” he said.
One of the local musicians Lucacek has played with is Gwyn Reynolds, a violinist, who he recruited to join the orchestra, as well.
Reynolds grew up in Westminster, Maryland, and learned to play in middle school.
“The last orchestra I played in was in Pennsylvania in 2015,” she said. “I previously played in the Dickinson College orchestra as a community member. In college, I played at Lee University – we had a string quartet and we had a symphonic orchestra, and I played in other music groups, as well.”
Reynolds moved to Pocahontas County in 2017 and made friends with local musicians, who have helped expand her musical tastes from violin to fiddle.
“Irish fiddling is my favorite,” she said. “When I came here in 2017, I was actually working on finishing my bachelor’s through West Virginia University, and they said they could give me some credit for life experience, so they asked if I could give them a sample of fiddle styles. Ragtime fiddling was really what they liked at the university.”
While Reynolds has expanded her repertoire to include other styles, she admits to preferring classical and orchestral music.
“My heart really is into that kind of music more than anything,” she said.
Being able to return to that music in her new home has been nice for Reynolds, who said the Highland Community Orchestra has a different feel to it than other orchestras in which she has performed.
“It’s just nice because there’s a feel of it’s just a group of friends getting together – this is my feeling on it,” she said. “We all strive to do the best that we can, but I’ve been in orchestras in the past where there’s all this pressure. There was a lot of stress that went behind the last orchestra I was in and with this one, I don’t feel stressed.
“Gretta’s a wonderful leader,” Reynolds continued. “She has a real intuition of what her musicians can do. She seems to have a knack for bringing out the best in all of us and she’s not trying to make it hard for us. We start easy and build our way up.”
The Highland Community Orchestra will continue to practice and Sandberg plans to have a holiday performance sometime in December. She adds that there is still room for more musicians to join if they want to become part of the group.
“I am willing for anybody who has played for a number of years,” she said. “I want to make sure they actually read music because otherwise, it’s too much of a struggle for them.”
The orchestra’s performance in August was fully funded by Sandberg, and she said she open to donations to keep the group going.
“The Highland County Arts Council – which I’m a member of – has decided they will be our sponsors, so they will be accepting donations from people for the orchestra,” Sandberg said. “We needs funds to keep this going. We’re just starting out, and we’re just going to see where it goes.”
Those interested in joining the orchestra or making a donation may contact Sandberg at firstname.lastname@example.org