Building an orchestra in a city as small as Whitehorse poses a variety of pesky challenges. How do you fill the bassoonist’s chair, for instance? More dauntingly, can you corral enough qualified — and available — players to form a string section that can hold its own against the more forceful brass and woodwinds?

Henry Klassen knows those challenges all too well. Klassen has been a dominant figure on the Whitehorse musical scene for decades. His name has been inextricably linked with the Rotary Music Festival since its origins in 1969. He taught in the local school system for years, and in 1991 he founded the Big Band, which is still blowing strong. In November of 2013, a long-cherished dream came to fruition when he stepped onto the rehearsal podium to direct an ensemble of high-calibre musicians he had handpicked. The Whitehorse Community Orchestra was born.

A few months later, the group made its public debut, providing orchestral backing for a performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s famous 1874 piano suite, “Pictures from an Exhibition”. The event was a recital by members of the Yukon Registered Music Teachers Association (YRMTA), presented as part of the Whitehorse Concerts “Classical Territory” series at Yukon Arts Centre. “In the end, we had an orchestra of 28 or 29 people, plus eight or nine piano players (members of YRMTA) playing in pairs. That was our first orchestral endeavour, at the end of January last year,” Klassen says.

This week marks the ensemble’s sophomore appearance, when it plays two orchestral suites compiled from Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera, Carmen, as well as two pieces by Russian composers Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov and Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov.

While the match-up with YRMTA and Whitehorse Concerts seems like a good fit, Klassen doesn’t know what direction the orchestra will take in the future. “I know that the second time you do something in the Yukon, they think it’s now a permanent institution,” he jokes. One possibility is forming a separate society to administer the orchestra’s affairs, rather than relying on the sponsorship of YRMTA, which has limited resources. “I do expect the orchestra will continue in some form or another,” he says. “Whether I will be doing the conducting of it or not, that’s another matter. I have to consider other things, including my age and how long I want to do this. I’m not hanging onto the position for dear life.”

He doesn’t sugar-coat the challenges, especially in light of statistics that suggest it takes a minimum population of 35,000 for a city to sustain an orchestra. And despite the Yukon’s wealth of musical talent, finding qualified people who have the time to make such a major commitment is not easy. Take those strings, for example. “Right now I have seven people on violin, I have one viola, I have two cellos and I have two string basses. Those are my strings. Ideally, I need about 30.” Fortunately, some clever microphone placement by arts centre technicians can redress the imbalance between the strings and their brassier counterparts.

But sometimes Dame Fate wields a fickle finger. For example, at the upcoming concert, you’ll definitely hear a bassoon. But don’t bother looking for the bassoon player.

In the run-up to last year’s concert, Klassen had a “very good” bassoonist on board. Until she had a serious fall, followed by another one last spring, and is sidelined due to concussion. Then her replacement also pulled out for medical reasons. “So now I have a piano player who used to play bassoon in high school who’s playing the bassoon parts on his synthesizer,” he says.

But Klassen takes it all in stride. “I work in a world of professional adults who have their occupations as engineers, as consultants, as whatever they do, and so it is very hard to pull it all together,” he admits. “I have had only one person who has been there for every rehearsal, besides myself.”

The Whitehorse Concerts event takes place at the Yukon Arts Centre on Saturday, February 28, beginning at 8:00 p.m. Tickets range from $12 to $37.

The first half of the program will consist of nine solo and ensemble performances by members of the YRMTA. The Whitehorse Community Orchestra will conclude the program.

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