‘It’s completely changed my life!’ Orchestra Next empowers students with professional experience

By Kristen Hudgins 

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It’s a rare occurrence to hear a professional orchestra rehearsal described as “silly” and “fun,” as they are typically regarded as serious affairs. Yet, that is exactly what musicians have come to expect from Orchestra Next (ON), Eugene’s professional training orchestra. 
 
Founded by School of Music and Dance (SOMD) Professor of Music Brian McWhorter, ON operates akin to any professional orchestra but with a distinct focus on fostering a positive environment. “I think it's important to have that kind of rapport with your musicians, everybody together,” McWhorter mused. “It only elevates the art.” 

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Brian McWhorter conducts ON 

This approach resonates deeply with musicians like Mallory Wood, a flautist and graduate student at the SOMD. "I didn't know that an orchestra could be like this!” she said. “I love performing and I want to be an orchestral musician, but sometimes it doesn't feel fun. This experience flipped that notion on its head.”

McWhorter, along with Sarah Veins, launched ON in 2012 to address the lack of professional-level music opportunities for SOMD students. Since then, ON has served more than 600 students like Wood. Through their participation, these eager musicians are mentored by principals, consisting of Eugene’s creative and vibrant professionals

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Principal flautist Dr. Jacqueline Cordova-Arrington mentors students in ON

One such mentor, SOMD Professor of Bassoon Dr. Steve Vacchi, emphasizes the importance of this unique model for young musicians. “Seeing and hearing mentors ‘walk the talk,’ having a real-life experience of one week for all rehearsals and performances, and getting to collaborate with ballet in a large performance venue is unique,” Vacchi said. 
 
In addition to its role in providing professional-level music opportunities, ON was created to address the need for live music for local arts productions. Over the years, ON has forged partnerships with various organizations, including the University of Oregon Theatre Department and Eugene Ballet, among others.  
 
Its longest-standing collaboration has been with the Eugene Ballet, where ON has played every performance of The Nutcracker for twelve years. The pair’s 100th performance at the Hult Center was celebrated in May and coincided with the final show of Peter Pan. The ballet featured a nearly 100-minute commission for full orchestra by Kenji Bunch. It’s ON’s second commission from Bunch after the critically acclaimed The Snow Queen.

“These projects are risks and I'm so glad we have artists brave enough to take them on here in little Eugene,” expressed cellist and SOMD student Adam Broce. Beyond Broce’s appreciation for ON’s exciting repertoire, he credits the organization for solidifying his determination to become a professional musician following graduation.

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Adam Broce (pictured center) performs with Orchestra Next  

“Because of Orchestra Next, I have a greater understanding of the demands and responsibilities of a professional musician,” he reflected. “I feel as though I am capable of working with the incredible orchestras that I've grown up listening to – so long as I'm prepared to put in the work.” 
 
Both Broce and Wood acknowledge the significance of professional experience, like that which they have received through Orchestra Next, when applying to audition for orchestras. “They will scan your resume and flat out deny you from auditioning if you don't have any professional experience on your resume,” Wood pointed out.

As Broce and Wood prepare for graduation in June, they know they are set up for success, not only through SOMD’s academic teachings but also extracurricular activities like Orchestra Next. “It's been the most memorable and remarkable thing I've done since being in Oregon,” Wood smiled. “It's completely changed my life.”

All photos in this story were taken by photographer Andy Nelson.