Ernest Richardson, music director of the Steamboat Springs Orchestra, works through a piece of music Monday evening during a rehearsal for this weekend's spring concert at the Steamboat Springs Christian Center.

Photo by John F. Russell

Ernest Richardson, music director of the Steamboat Springs Orchestra, works through a piece of music Monday evening during a rehearsal for this weekend's spring concert at the Steamboat Springs Christian Center.

More than music

For SSO's Richardson, composition gets to the core of human experience

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Past Event

Steamboat Springs Orchestra

  • Saturday, April 5, 2008, 7:30 p.m.
  • Steamboat Christian Center, 821 Dougherty Rd, Steamboat Springs
  • All ages / $10 - $20

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— It's possible that the depth of Ernest Richardson's effortless connection to classical music comes from a basic truth - he has never known anything else.

The Steamboat Springs Orchestra music director started studying violin at 3 years old, and one of his earliest memories is conducting the classics to a semi-circle of stuffed animals.

When he expressed an interest in conducting, Richardson's father/violin teacher/music mentor told his son to become the best musician he could first. So he did, racking up stints with the Phoenix and Omaha symphonies as a section, and then solo, violist. He studied his instrument along with music theory and history to round out the experience.

"All those things prepared me to become a conductor," he said. "You have to have all these skills before you start waving a stick around."

Going pro

On Saturday, Richardson will lead SSO through repertoire it never would have considered four years ago, nearing the end of the orchestra's first fully programmed season.

"It's actually remarkable. The quality of play has advanced so quickly that the professional players in the orchestra who have a long experience in playing with professional orchestras, every now and then we just look at each other and think, 'Is this really going on?'" Richardson said.

When he took the lead as music director in fall 2004, Richardson said SSO wasn't headed in a clear direction. The group practiced once a week, and it was mostly a social event - neither circumstance bode well for turning the orchestra into a professional group.

Richardson guest conducted for a couple of concerts. Things went well, and the ensemble changed its structure to accommodate Richardson's schedule, rehearsing less and performing more.

Under Richardson's leadership, rehearsal time is fragmented, leaning on dynamics and inflection rather than run-throughs of whole pieces.

"I think that Ernest is a magician, because he can get so much out of this orchestra. It's like magic the kind of sounds that he can get when he rehearses us," said Bonnie Murray, a second violinist with the orchestra.

"He's very detail-oriented. He can figure out what's wrong, and then he's able to tell us how to fix it and it sounds great. It's kind of like a puzzle, he picks apart these pieces and puts it all together, and then it's complete," she said.

Working that magic often means playing specific passages over and over, until the tone is just right.

"You wonder if the audience can even tell, and they might not, specifically," Richardson said. "But what they hear, I believe, is the players' intent. They hear the commitment that making this note longer than that note requires. That commitment, that intent, supercedes the notes that we play."

Reaching out

Before he took the reins of a transitioning ensemble in a developing area, Richardson thought about how to make a professional orchestra work in a changing landscape - one where the population is growing, where the arts are booming and where classical music seems to have evaded the death tolls ringing in larger markets.

"I like to think of a community as having a fabric, and I like to see the orchestra being woven into that fabric, so it's not just off to the left side," he said. The group does that with educational efforts in and out of schools, as well as retaining professional-quality musicians in the community.

It's all part of an effort to up the quality of life in a community by offering diverse experiences - including performing the music that Richardson said "reveals the human experience in some way." He believes improving the repertoire and playing power of a local orchestra, made up primarily of local musicians, is a way to get at what music can mean on a greater level.

"What they're really accomplishing is - it's dramatic and it's important," he said of SSO members. "And it's exciting to be along for the ride in that process."

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