String Orchestra

Maria Larionoff, Margaret Baldridge, Adam Collins and Jennifer Smith, from left, rehearse in October 2020 at the University of Montana for the last String Orchestra of the Rockies.

Folk themes, youthful allusions and composers who all picked up the bow themselves tie together the next String Orchestra of the Rockies concert on Sunday, Nov. 21.

Mark O’Connor’s "Appalachia Waltz" is hopeful and uplifting. Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony” builds on themes he wrote as a child, which you’ll hear with the addition of student players. And Antonin Dvorak’s String Sextet is built on Czech folk music.

“In addition to coming out of the pandemic, there's just a joyfulness when you have a roomful of string players coming together,” said Maria Larionoff, the artistic director.

O’Connor, who crosses genres from Americana to classical and jazz, has “founded an entirely new school of violin technique and school of violin playing,” Larionoff said.

Coincidentally, his son Forrest O’Connor, attended Hellgate High School, and the family’s group, the O’Connor Band, won a Grammy in 2016 for best bluegrass band for their record “Coming Home.”

The lengthiest piece on the program is Dvorak’s String Sextet. In an unusual move for the composer (who was a violist), he wrote this piece very quickly, Larionoff said. It’s harmonies are “sunny, they’re very rich, they’re very melodious,” and don’t hide his love of folk music.

Larionoff arranged the piece for string orchestra herself, as it already boasted symphonic textures, she said. While not every piece can be expanded for more players, she thought its harmonies had enough depth that she could add more voices.

Britten, a violist, wrote Simple Symphony based on themes he’d composed when he was a child. That charming quality has contributed to its popularity. One section, “Playful Pizzicato,” was featured in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” and another “Sentimental Sarabande,” in Netflix’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

On that piece, the orchestra will be joined by “rising stars” — young musicians from the University of Montana School of Music plus one high-schooler. They become “equal members,” Larionoff said, and get to participate in the professional rush of concert weekend. Since the rotating members of the group are educators and some live outside of Missoula, they hold the first rehearsal on Friday afternoon, then more on Saturday, and then a Sunday dress rehearsal before the evening concert.

“Those sorts of experiences stay with you your whole life … and it gives the students the idea that you need to pay it forward, when you get older,” she said.

The season so far

The SOR resumed a “normal” season in the fall, playing to a nearly full house at their September concert. The group, a nonprofit, had “immense, immense support from the community” since the pandemic started," Larionoff said.

“Even if people aren’t in the seats, they’re showing their support. So I was very happy to see that and also happy to be back,” she said.

For those who do venture back, there will likely be new faces on stage. Larionoff said that during the pandemic a “lot of wonderful string players somehow relocated to Missoula, and we have incorporated them into SOR.”

“There’s a lot of fresh string talent in the Missoula community,” she said.