Jack Herriman steps up to the lectern and jokes with the musicians, looking every bit the conductor with his wavy white hair and baton.
It's the first time the Chandler Symphony Orchestra has played in the auditorium at Desert Vista High School, its temporary home for the next year while its regular venue, the Chandler Center for the Arts, undergoes a voter-approved $6.7 million renovation project.
This year could be a rough one for the 23-year-old symphony, which does not charge admission to concerts and relies on donations for most of its support. Instead of performing in downtown Chandler, its venue has moved all the way to the school in Ahwatukee Foothills.
It could become clear on Oct. 11 - when the orchestra holds its first performance of the season - if the audience, and the donations, will follow.
"OK," Herriman says, lifting his hands during a recent rehearsal. "Let's see what we sound like in here."
There is a sudden, startling blast from the instruments, and the orchestra is off, plunging into a rousing Russian piece of classical music by Dmitri Kabalevsky.
A DIVERSE GROUP
Alan Wilkie, 80, judges himself to be the orchestra's oldest member. A former public school music teacher who has been with the orchestra for 10 years, the Sun Lakes resident is one of 32 violin players.
He said auditions are always open, but membership has been pretty solid year to year.
"They are simply community members who have had a great deal of musical training," he said.
Wilkie said he's not the first chair, which is reserved for the best player, but rather "toward the end of the section." He resolved to try out for membership when he learned how stiff his fingers had become after playing an Irish jig for a friend's birthday party.
When he arrived, however, Herriman waived the audition and motioned him to have a seat, Wilkie said.
"I went down and he said, 'Sit there.' Maybe he liked the looks of my case or my violin and thought I looked like I knew what I was doing," he said.
Herriman, a Chandler resident originally from Kansas City, Mo., said the nearly 100-member orchestra draws unpaid volunteer musicians from across the Valley. They include teachers, lawyers, doctors, cabinetmakers, college students and retirees.
"It's a very friendly group. We don't have a lot of this competition business that many musicians have," he said. "They came to play with a good orchestra."
During the course of the rehearsal, there are a couple of false starts. The atmosphere is lighthearted, but Herriman is not hesitant to call out a standing bass player he feels hasn't joined in with enough force.
"You're afraid of it," he charges.
The Chandler City Council recently approved $42,000 to help fund the orchestra. Herriman said the city has been "very generous."
Even so, the city's contribution amounts to less than half of the orchestra's $100,000 budget. The rest comes from donations, he said.
As conductor, Herriman receives a salary, as does the assistant conductor and stage manager. The rest of the budget goes toward publicity and program costs.
Herriman said he worries the ongoing economic downturn, combined with moving the venue to Ahwatukee Foothills, could take its toll on donations.
"We don't know. I really can't judge that right now. We've tried to get the word out," he said. "Many orchestras in the U.S. have trouble sustaining themselves. The smaller orchestras, like us, we do have a problem with getting donations."
The orchestra has made some sacrifices, such as forgoing high-profile soloists who require a fee, he said.
"We just have to go with what is available and we have to adjust," Herriman said.
The group is making a plea for corporate sponsorship and for funding from charitable foundations.
"We welcome any sponsorship," Herriman said. "Right now, there isn't much money being given out."
A symphony, Herriman said, adds value to the social landscape.
"Even though Chandler is a small community compared to others, we really have some culture," he said.
Wilkie said the orchestra has held performances to celebrate special events, such as last year's concert celebrating the Chinese New Year, which drew about 1,200 people. The orchestra played selections by Chinese composers.
"The Chinese community just backed this concert to the point where there was a completely full house and we set up 150 chairs in the foyer," he said.
The symphony has strong connections to China, including Joy Pan, the concertmaster and violin player, and principal cello player Li Ma, Wilkie said.
Herriman said he would like to do an all-Russian concert and invite the local Russian consulate.
"There are quite a few of them," he said of the Valley's Russian residents. "We're willing to do any community that's well represented."
The orchestra's normal schedule involves five concerts per season, which lasts from October to May. Wilkie said its repertoire of music tilts classical, including composers like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Brahms.
Herriman said the orchestra moved to Chandler in 1991 from Mesa Community College. It initially played in the downtown Chandler Public Library, he said.
"It's bigger now. We started with a smaller group," he said. "The high point for me has been to see this orchestra develop year after year into a workable ensemble."
The audience has grown over time, as well.
"We have pretty full houses," Herriman said.
The Chandler Center for the Arts is slated to reopen in May 2010. The orchestra plans one more rehearsal before its first concert at Desert Vista High School. On Tuesday, it was still making adjustments, like moving the horns to the opposite side of the stage for better acoustics.
"It has a different feel to it," Herriman said, "but all halls are different."