Lifestyle

In Melrose, a century of making music

Violinist Johanna Szarkowski (center) focuses as she and her fellow members of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra follow the lead of Music director Yoichi Udagawa.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Violinist Johanna Szarkowski (center) focuses as she and her fellow members of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra follow the lead of Music director Yoichi Udagawa.

MELROSE — Sounds of musical discord float out of Memorial Hall, the door opened on a warm October night while a steady stream of musicians enter.

Taking their seats onstage, the musicians — all volunteers — chat while unpacking violins, flutes, trombones, trumpets, French horns, and more. Some do a quick warm-up.

“OK, quiet everybody.”

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Music director Yoichi Udagawa, a diminutive man with a mop of silvery hair, hops onto the conductor platform. He claps his hands. The notes of discord quiet. It’s
7:30 p.m.

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“Thirty seconds.”

Suddenly, the room fills with the sound of the 80 people snapping their fingers. It’s familiar: Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein’s classical musical. The snapping stops. Everyone picks up their instruments and plays.

For 44 years, Priscilla Hunt, a violinist, retired Wakefield Schools music teacher, and Tewksbury resident, has relished a standing date: Mondays from 7:30 to
10 p.m., when she rehearses as a member of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra.

“I’m busy every Monday night,” she said. OK, except for holidays and summer.

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This year, the Melrose Symphony Orchestra marks its 100th season as the nation’s oldest, continuously performing volunteer orchestra.

Nothing — not wars and economic crashes, nor dips in audience attendance or a changing music scene — has stopped them.

This September, more than 5,000 fans attended the orchestra’s first-ever, free outdoor Pops concert at Morelli Field, complete with a fireworks finale.

“This crowd is for us?” Maureen Carroll, a cellist with the MSO for 18 years, said several performers asked each other in amazement. “It could’ve been for Bruce Springsteen.”

Carroll, a veterinary internist at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, travels 50 miles round trip from her home in Wayland to the orchestra, which she calls her “oasis in life.” Many performers have become longtime friends.

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A mix of professional players and dedicated amateurs make up the orchestra, conceived and performed in Melrose, though only 25 players are residents. The bulk come from surrounding towns on the North Shore. Others commute from as far south as Norton and far north as Andover. Or even farther.

Mark Pilkanis, a retired IT worker, has been the MSO’s timpanist since 2003. A trained musician with a graduate degree from the Boston Conservatory, the percussionist treks 2 to 2½ hours — yes, one-way — from West Kingston, R.I.

Even Udagawa isn’t exempt. He wheels in from Watertown.

A cover conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra, the MSO’s eighth music director and conductor is celebrating his own 20th anniversary with the orchestra. Udagawa is also the music director and conductor for the Quincy Symphony Orchestra, in its 64th season, and the Cape Ann Symphony, celebrating its 66th season.

“Sold-out concerts are the norm,” said general manager Jessi Eisendorf. Audiences regularly fill the nearly 800-seat Memorial Hall where Udagawa makes the music accessible to all, informing the audience when to listen to something specific during performances.

The majority of the audiences aren’t musically inclined, “but they come to support the town, and for the experience,” Eisendorf said.

Tickets for the annual holiday Pops concert ($30 general admission, $38 table seating, and various levels of subscriptions) held in December typically sell out in October.

The Melrose Symphony Orchestra has come a long way from its humble start in 1918, when only 13 players attended the first rehearsal, which was held on Main Street. By the time the debut concert took place, there were 45 volunteer players.

Reasonably priced tickets help draw audiences, but talent is the big ticket, both in the orchestra — musicians must audition — and onstage with special guest appearances.

Gospel singer Renese King, who sang at former Boston mayor Thomas Menino’s funeral, is the featured soloist for this year’s holiday concert in December. The 1990 Berklee alum and staff member has been bringing gospel to the classical orchestral setting for the past decade on alternate years. “Who knew Melrose was such a hotbed for gospel?” she laughed.

Though she wasn’t familiar with the MSO a decade ago, King admits she was “won over” her first time hearing the string section rehearse.

“I wasn’t expecting to hear what I heard,” King said. “It was a sound comparable to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“It kinda blew me away.”

Over the century, music stars have appeared onstage with the orchestra, including Arthur Fieldler, the famed Boston Pops Orchestra conductor, actress Maureen O’Hara, and jazz artist Gary Burton.

Pilkanis says the MSO is “run like a strictly professional group, not a group of volunteers,” referring to both the players and administration.

“It’s not the easiest group to play with,” he said, referring to the high standards Udagawa sets. “Significant demands are put upon by the music you play and the conductor.”

Even for the eight teenage players. Every year, Udagawa auditions an “incredible pipeline of young talent” from the Melrose High School orchestra led by music director, Luke Miller, himself a five-year MSO violinist from Wilmington.

Some graduate onto musical success. Nick Finch, the principal cellist of the Louisville Symphony, got his start playing cello on the Melrose High School orchestra and the MSO.

The Melrose symphony had years with empty seats. Then Millie Rich, a resident and former executive MSO director for 30 years before retiring in 2010, played a pivotal role connecting businesses to support the orchestra.

According to Jim Oosterman, vice president of Melrose Bank, a sponsor since 2008, Rich was a “mover and shaker” who believed even if seats had to be given away, filled seats would energize the orchestra and result in strong performances.

What was good for the orchestra, he said, what also good for businesses, they quickly learned.

Rehearsal time seems to fly by. Still, the tireless Udagawa presses. Opening night is Nov. 4.

“OK, that’s not bad. Let’s take it again. A one and a two … .”

Kelly Shiel Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@gmail.com