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Not your grandma's orchestra

Once or twice a month in the East Bay, violinists and bass-players, flautists and trumpeters -- gather to play orchestra music. But instead of a concert hall, they meet in warehouses or museums. No one’s wearing a tie or gown, and the group hasn’t rehearsed. They play a few pieces together and swill free beer between sets.

It all started about two years ago, when founder David Möschler learned that a friend’s very ill father had the dream of conducting Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro Overture” with an orchestra.

“Immediately I said, ‘I know a lot of players who would do this. Why don’t we surprise him?’,” says Möschler.

Thirty-one-year-old Möschler is a freelance musical director for theater and opera companies. He got together a bunch of musicians, and the ailing man did indeed conduct the piece. It was so much fun that the musicians started asking Möschler when they could do something like that again. So he started this regular gathering, called the Awesöme Orchestra.

On a rainy Saturday in March, I dusted off my clarinet and dropped in to play along.

On that day, we meet inside what looks like an oversized carport with rain pounding on the corrugated roof. A handful of people are moving furniture and setting up microphones and a mixing board. They’re converting this airy art space into a concert hall.

“When the van gets here, they’re going to go around to the back, and they’re going to load in that way because it’s much drier and it’s much safer,” says Möschler, conductor of the Orchestra. His crew is unloading instruments -- a timpani, bass drums, cymbals, snare drums -- out of the back of a van.

We’re a block from Ashby BART. The front doors and windows of this makeshift concert hall open directly onto the sidewalk.

“We like places that are accessible,” says Möschler, “where people walking by can stop and say, ‘What’s this? A whole orchestra? What’s going on?’”  

By noon, about 90 musicians sit in close half-circles around Möschler, who’s at the conductor’s stand. The violins and violas sit closest, with the cellos and basses to the side. The woodwinds come next. The brass -- trumpets, trombones and tubas -- are up on the stage behind us. It’s crowded.

People pull out their instruments and start tuning strings, sucking on reeds, and playing scales.

I open my case and put my clarinet together. I’m a little nervous. It’s been a long time since I’ve played with a group.

“Let’s take a tuning note from one of the oboes for the winds and brass,” Möschler says.

Möschler raises his baton and guides the warm-ups. He says his conducting style is less traditional than some conductors. Sometimes he’ll even just start the group off and let them finish on their own.

“Because I’m not their boss,” Möschler declares. “I’m just kind of like an air traffic controller, like, ‘Over here a little slower;  okay, stop,’ you know? As opposed to somebody who’s in charge of them.”

We’re working from sheet music, but we haven’t rehearsed together. The piece we’re about to play is the score for one of “The Lord of the Rings” movies.

Around 50 people -- mostly in their 20s and 30s -- pack the edges of the room. They’re here just to listen. Afterward, they applaud and cheer.

“Pretty good sight-reading for an orchestra, right?” Möschler asks. “Now, who wants to go do nothing but watch all three extended editions in a row?”

Most of the hands in the room go up. Hmm… I think maybe I should consider watching the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

Performing movie scores and other contemporary classical music, as well as pieces by composers like Prokofiev and Mahler, is part of the Awesöme Orchestra’s mission. Möschler says the group seeks out musical adventures of all kinds.

“Orchestras are a really amazing, powerful thing, and unfortunately, for many different reasons, over the last several hundred years, they’ve become fundamentally more and more inaccessible,” says Möschler. “We need to give this to everyone; we need to give this opportunity to listen to stuff, or to play it, or just to be involved somehow up close.”

Another way Möschler keeps the material fresh is by trying out new work by up-and-coming composers.

“Next up, very, very exciting: we’re going to do a premier reading of a new piece by a local composer named Jacob Bertrand, called ‘The Cloud-Gatherer,’ ” he says.

“The Cloud-Gatherer” is based on a poem. Looking at the clarinet part, I think it looks pretty simple… but coming in at the right time, with the right volume, is key. I’m pretty excited to be part of the first-ever ensemble to play this piece.

After applause at the end, I realize we’ve been playing for 90 minutes, and my embouchure -- my mouth and jaw -- are really tired. It’s time for a break. People get up to grab a beer, say “hi” to friends, and use the bathroom. Right now, since talking is easier for me than playing one more note, I set out to meet my fellow musicians.

Lucy Giraldo, who plays violin and viola in a string quartet -- and in an indie-folk band, tells me why she comes out for the Awesöme Orchestra.

“I like putting my finger in all different types of pies, musical pies,” she says. “It’s just such a fun, casual environment to come and play classical music with people. It’s not high pressure, it’s not stuffy, we’re not in suits and ties.”

Sitting a few rows away is Sally Johnson. She plays French horn in several different East Bay orchestras, but for her, the Awesöme Orchestra stands out.

“Well, number one, it’s really good musicians,” Johnson says. “It’s demanding, to be able to come in here and sightread the music and learn it to the degree that it’s passable, to play it, to perform it.”

For me, participation in the Awesöme Orchestra really was “awesome.” It was exciting, and stirring, to play among 90 other musicians. It felt powerful to bring these symphonic pieces to breathing, pulsating life. And I did have fun, despite my aching jaw and ragged lower lip.

Special thanks to Dirk Epperson of The Academy of Art University, who contributed his students’ recordings to this story.

This story originally aired in June of 2016.