BAYTOWN, Texas (AP) — The discordant sounds of 35 musicians tuning their instruments echoed through a rehearsal room at Lee College in Baytown.
The Houston Chronicle reports the players, gathered from around the area, were dressed casually. One had spent his day doing surgery. Another came after a shift at a chemical plant.
"Let's start with 'La Forza,'" Music Director Pierre-Alain Chevalier said, and the three introductory "E'' brass and bassoon notes of Giuseppe Verdi's work blasted into the space.
Baytown, a city better known for oil refining than for high culture, might seem an unlikely place for such an endeavor. Yet the Baytown Symphony Orchestra's weekly Tuesday night rehearsal was getting underway — among musicians who knew these sessions might soon come to an end.
The unlikely orchestra, halfway through its 51st season, has struggled financially to complete its final two shows. It has operated for at least 12 years at a deficit, relying on savings that have finally run out. Whether it will open another season is uncertain.
"We're in kind of dire straits, as many orchestras are," said James Marioneaux, 69, a retired school band director who lives in Baytown and plays clarinet.
A number of community orchestras such as Baytown's have carved places for themselves amid Houston's sprawl. The groups gather in the Energy Corridor, the Texas Medical Center and various suburbs. Baytown is not alone in its struggle: The Woodlands Symphony Orchestra closed for about five years before starting again in 2013.
These orchestras serve multiple roles. Professional musicians get freelance work, volunteer amateurs have a place to play, and advanced students perform with the pros. Tickets in Baytown cost $20 for any seat, and locals can hear classical music among neighbors, close to home.
"They're a vital part of the city's musical ecosystem," Houston Symphony Executive Director John Mangum said. "These orchestras not only provide musical opportunities for the audience but also musical opportunities for performers in our community."
Baytown is nearly 30 miles east of downtown Houston. With a 2017 estimated population of nearly 77,000, it is an industry town. ExxonMobil, Chevron Phillips and Covestro have significant local operations. A replica oil derrick along Interstate 10 heralds the exit ramp leading to the city.
Among the refineries, there is also refinement, Marioneaux says.
Arts groups help make cities attractive places to work and live, said Gary Gibbs, the executive director of the Texas Commission on the Arts. Baytown's mayor, Brando Capetillo, called the local orchestra a "great amenity" that he hopes can survive.
"We absolutely want to see them be successful," said Capetillo, a 46-year-old Baytown native, who is also a corporate quality manager for Airgas.
The waterfront city, with its egret logo, is a mish-mash of nature and industry. In the midst of what Capetillo called a renaissance driven by plant expansions, city leaders strive to provide residents a high quality of life. Capetillo cited recent successes: The San Jacinto Mall is being redeveloped, a new hotel is expected and the Houston Methodist Baytown hospital has expanded.
The Baytown Arts District stretches along Texas Avenue. Among aging storefronts stand a local theater group, an under-renovation art deco theater and a painted alley where colorful, suspended umbrellas seem to float.
The Baytown Symphony Orchestra never had its own space but grew instead in connection with the local community college — due to the effort of a former Houston Symphony trumpeter, David Corder.
Charged with building Lee College's instrumental department, Corder began the orchestra as a course, enticing professional musicians who could play in it and teach private lessons. Locals could register through a continuing education program. The college provided them space and helped design performance posters.
After 36 years, Corder, now 81, stepped down as conductor and left the orchestra with a reserve fund of $75,000. But over time, the cumbersome continuing education sign-ups ceased to be worthwhile for the college, which decided it would be better not to charge community members the fee.
The orchestra director is an adjunct professor, but too few college students were signing up to make a full orchestra class. The college found a solution, cutting the band course to encourage participation in the symphony.
"It's a complex relationship, but it's one that we're happy to continue," said Veronique Tran, vice president of instruction at the college. "We see it as a vital part of the Baytown community and want to do what we can to support it."
For the last 12 years, the orchestra's average revenue was $61,158, including annual gala fundraising and ads sold in the programs. Average expenses were $71,301. Ticket sales fluctuated, donations seemed fewer and board participation waned.
"I can see a wonderful value for the community," Corder says, "but in these times — which is something to do with money and something to do with time and something to do with peoples' value systems — it seems like it's more difficult."
In the last two performance programs, the board director published a plea for help.
Across the area, similar groups found varied paths to success: the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1992, collaborates with local organizations such as the history association. "We make sure that we are part of our community," said Dominique Royem, 38, music director.
The Woodlands Symphony Orchestra, which started the same year and shut down for five years, like its peers relies heavily on donations. Its second life has been followed by something of an arts explosion in the area, said Darryl Bayer, 58, artistic director.
"This is a grassroots effort in The Woodlands," he said.
Making up the community orchestras are musicians of varied backgrounds. Some played seriously in school but pursued other career paths, or retired and receive a stipend or play for free. Some are freelancers, professional musicians who make a living doing various jobs that might be spread far and wide. A local union helps set wages.
Jobs at major symphonies are typically tenured. Sarah McDonner, 32, in 2014 started ECHOrchestra in the Energy Corridor, where she grew up, when she found that she could not find any open positions for a flutist among nearby community groups. It allowed her to create an outlet for art in an area that lacked one, she said, but she doesn't make a living from it. She and her husband make and sell mosquito repellent.
"I think the importance of our organization is the accessibility," McDonner said, expressing a common sentiment. "It's the fact that you don't have to drive very far to get to see something cultural."
Back in Baytown, as the rehearsal progressed, Chevalier moved the group through the piece with urgency. He studied orchestral conducting at the University of Houston.
After 45 minutes of Verdi, they shifted to Jean Sibelius's second symphony. Together, they played the measures over and over, focused on the tempo. Chevalier critiqued and encouraged. "That's the idea," he might say. "That's much better." It was a lot of work.
Among the players was Kara Chandler, 33, who studied music in graduate school and wanted to find a way to keep playing the French horn. The mother of three felt it was an important part of who she was.
There was also Katie Cash, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, who credits the group for improving her bass skills. And Pedro Carrizales, a 20-year-old in his second year at the college, who said the same of his playing the trumpet.
Danny Wong, 59, an ear, nose and throat doctor, hadn't played the violin for some 35 years until, at the behest of a patient, he picked it up again to take lessons and then join a group he hadn't heard of before.
A family practice doctor, Mary Faye Hewitt, plays percussion. Her 14-year-old daughter, Corinna Levy, is learning to play the bassoon. She played along with her mom in the symphony's Christmas concert last year.
When the teenager heard the symphony might be ending soon, she felt sad she wouldn't be able to participate when she got older. She and three other music-loving eighth graders drafted a letter to the Baytown Sun.
"Those of us that play an instrument wish to play in the Symphony when we are older," they wrote. "Music is part of what makes our lives enjoyable."
Levy was at rehearsal that recent Tuesday, listening. Chevalier kept the musicians at focused attention for 135 minutes, with one 15-minute break. His body swayed. He described how the music should sound with bee bum bums and bah bee bah bahs and yaggah daggah dees. Once, he stomped his foot.
He hated to think of Baytown losing this.
"I just wish we could figure out how to communicate to people a little bit better," Chevalier said earlier. "Does the community understand just how much it takes to run an orchestra like this and that we need continued support?"
It's hard to keep a community orchestra afloat, but the benefits, he thought, were beyond words.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com