Volunteer Orchestra offers performance, seeks members _lowres

Photo provided by NOVO -- Rachael Levine is the principal cellist for the orchestra and a student at Lusher Charter School.

Calling all aspiring young concert musicians!

Looking for a place to polish your skills among your peers? The New Orleans Volunteer Orchestra might just be what you’re looking for.

Founded in 2012 on the campus of Loyola University as an extension of the music department, NOVO went independent this year. According to its mission statement, the orchestra has three main goals: “Accessible (free) concerts for everyone, all-inclusive free membership and music education and arts outreach.”

In short, NOVO serves as a training ground for primarily young musicians who aspire to professional careers as orchestra members. However, some of its members are in other professions and just enjoy playing their instruments along with other classical musicians.

The roughly 60-member NOVO is also the umbrella organization for the Voices of New Orleans Choir. None of the orchestra or chorus members or the conductors are paid.

Loyola graduate and Music Director Chris Bergeron, 25, who co-founded the group with Joseph Cieslak, said that NOVO is “not only a great place [for musicians] to get the experience of playing with a real orchestra,” it has been beneficial for both him and Cieslak to get conducting experience.

“There was no other way to do this except to start our own little group,” Bergeron said. “You can’t conduct on YouTube or on the TV. You have to have musicians in front of you reacting to what you are doing.

“I can’t tell you how much more comfortable I am with the orchestra and how much better I’ve gotten with the craft and technique of conducting over these past four years,” Bergeron added. “It’s a great hands-on experience.”

Most of the musicians, Bergeron said, are in their teens or early to mid-20s, ranging from high school students to college music majors and graduate students. Some of them have been with NOVO since its earliest years.

One of them is 16-year-old Rachael Levine, NOVO’s principal cellist. Levine, a junior at Lusher Charter School who has been playing cello since she was 6, has performed once at Carnegie Hall and has been invited back to play there again in February.

Levine has also performed at the Birdfoot chamber music festival, held annually in New Orleans in May, and in other concert venues.

“It’s been a great learning experience,” Levine said. “NOVO has helped me evolve so much as a musician. It has given me harder music to do and much more experience as a musician. It has driven me to continue with my cello.”

Levine, who aspires to make classical music performance her profession, hopes to attend the University of Michigan’s music school after graduation.

Commenting on her experiences performing with NOVO, Levine said, “It’s a great orchestra. It’s like a community, a big family. We’re all together and we all play for the same reasons — for the love of music. And we’re all helping each other out. Chris looks after everyone as if they’re his family. Working with him has been very educational as a musician, and fun.”

NOVO will be staging its second concert of the season on Friday at the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. The program, titled “A Tchaikovsky and Charlie Brown Christmas,” will feature music from Tchaikovsky’s ballets “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” plus the Christmas classic “Sleigh Ride.”

The second half of the evening’s program will feature selections from Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack. The VONO Choir will be participating.

Admission to the concert is free, but donations are strongly encouraged to help support the all-volunteer orchestra and chorus. Musicians or singers interested in joining NOVO/VONO can contact Bergeron at (504) 377-8032.