St. Cloud, Minn. — Glance around the room at a St. Cloud Symphony rehearsal, and you'll find a typical community orchestra scene. Some players are in their early 20s, students at St. Cloud State. And others are in their 60s, longtime players dedicated to their hobby.
Right now they're all looking a bit weary. It's about 8 p.m., a few days before a concert. And the string section is struggling.
The conductor peers sternly from the podium.
"It needs to sound much tighter, I know you're capable of much better ensemble than this. So a word to the wise."
Conductor Bill Schrickel has taken deliberate steps to raise this orchestra's musical standards. First he instituted auditions. Then he dropped a pops concert from the season's program, to make more room for more serious orchestral works. And perhaps most notably, he started to program tough, contemporary pieces. Schrickel says he found the players to be quite willing.
"I feel like I can create programs that don't have any constrictions to them, artistically," he says. "I don't have to think, 'Well, I can't program this piece because the orchestra isn't up to it.' That has not happened once."
The musicians say Schrickel is a tough taskmaster, but they say that's what they need if they're going to improve. And they've already seen a huge improvement in the two years under his baton.
The most thrilled have been the more experienced musicians. Coca Bochonko, a professional viola player, says Schrickel's musical choices are stretching her.
"I've been in a lot of other orchestras and have played a lot of the standard repertoire, so it's always great to do new stuff and to get challenged that way," she says.
As Bochonko practices a solo for the upcoming concert, her husband, Mark Springer, watches. He plays trombone with the orchestra and heads the music department at St. Cloud State University. He says Schrickel has really made his mark, by instilling pride in the players, and a sense of cameraderie.
"I like the collaboration between those folks who do have more experience and those who don't. It's really a combined effort," says Springer. "The notion of the orchestra improving over time, and that I can assist in that in some way, that makes it a really fun and exciting part of what I can contribute to the orchestra."
According to Star Tribune classical music critic Michael Anthony, the results so far are extraordinary. He attended the orchestra's December performance, and praised the group as a real standout among community orchestras. He says every part of the orchestra was strong.
"What I heard there in December, in what I say was a difficult program, was very good playing," Anthony says. "And there was a real sense of optimism in the orchestra. I think they will prosper and expand."
For Schrickel, that expansion comes through building an audience. At most concerts, he talks to the audience before the orchestra plays to explain what they're about to hear.
He says he wants everyone in the community to come on board and learn from the performances, at the same time that he raises the musical standards along the way. It's a slow, incremental process. But Schrickel's taking it one step at a time.
"The next step is the next concert at this point. We continue to work hard and improve," says Schrickel. "The audience trusts that when they come to hear a concert, they'll know that even if it's something they haven't heard, or even if they don't like it, they'll listen with open ears -- and support a wonderful arts organization right in their hometown."
St. Cloud audiences seem to be rising to Schrickel's challenge. At at time when other arts organizations are struggling to hang on, the St. Cloud symphony's ticket sales are up.
The musicians expect good attendance at their concert this Saturday. They'll perform four composers' versions of the Romeo and Juliet story at the Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud.