Carson Valley Pops Orchestra rehearses at CVIC Hall
Brian Farnon wheeled a serving cart out of the kitchen at the CVIC Hall.
“This will be my music stand tonight,” laughed the former music director at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe as he positioned himself in front of a semi-circle of 25 musicians ranging in age from 11 to at 84.
With the same dedication and passion Farnon gave to Harrah’s South Shore Room for 25 years – playing for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. – he is ready to begin.
“It has to be a million times softer. It has to be on the beat,” he tells the brass section as they make their way through Jean Sibelius’ “Valse Triste.”
“Everybody, please,” he says patiently. “This is such a beautiful, delicate thing.”
Welcome to the third rehearsal of the Carson Valley Pops Orchestra.
This is strictly a shoestring operation. Nobody gets paid, and donations are cheerfully accepted.
But for young musicians who may not know the difference between Spike Jones and Spike Lee, it’s a golden opportunity to learn from veterans like Farnon, violinist Danny Yale, pianist Al Sutton and other professionals who wanted to keep making music after casino house bands gave way to recorded musical arrangements.
How, you might ask, did this ensemble end up at the CVIC Hall in downtown Minden, population 3,000?
For one thing, the price was right.
Farnon and Yale charmed the fiscally conservative Minden Town Board into waiving the $25 an hour rental fee. A deal was struck, however, that the pops orchestra would donate a performance or two for the town.
But the real reason the Carson Valley Pops Orchestra exists is that self-described “old pros” like Farnon and Yale and their colleagues aren’t ready to retire.
“I have been performing since I was 19. I was Nat King Cole’s musical director. I have to tell you, I must have conducted for every big name performer,” Farnon said.
He played, sang and conducted at clubs in Chicago, Hollywood, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Eventually, he made his way to Tahoe for what he thought would be temporary work, and he’s still there more than 30 years later.
Farnon worked at Harveys for three years before he was hired as Harrah’s music director in 1969 where he stayed for 25 years.
He is well-known to Northern Nevada audiences as the creator and star of Harrah’s annual Chrismas production of “Scrooge,” a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
n Not part of the vocabulary. Retirement was not in Farnon’s vocabulary, however, so he conducted the Tahoe Community Orchestra for three years.
“Danny Yale worked with me two or three times when I was music director at Harrah’s. Then he moved to Minden, and we got talking together,” he recalled.
Yale and Farnon believed Minden’s central location would be an easier commute than Tahoe for musicians all over Northern Nevada, and they were right.
The Carson Valley Pops Orchestra has 30 performers coming from Minden, Gardnerville, Yerington, Zephyr Cove, Reno, Carson City and Truckee for the Monday night practices.
n From the Met to Minden. Yale, who began violin studies at age 7 and played at the Metropolitan Opera and for Broadway musicals, now lives in Minden.
He’s a former orchestra leader as well, and plays every Sunday morning at Sterling’s restaurant in the Silver Legacy Casino in Reno.
He’s in charge of recruiting more musicians for the string section.
“We’re soliciting by word of mouth,” Yale said. “Any capable high school students who would like to learn from some old pros are more than welcome.”
Included in the orchestra are members of Farnon’s Tahoe Dance Band.
“I researched this,” he said. “I wondered if there were any classical orchestras with a dance band within it. And there were not. I thought we could combine dance, orchestra and classical. The same fellows play clarinets and flutes and oboes for classical music, put down those instruments and play swing. Why don’t we combine both? I love swing, I love classical music. We can play movie and television themes,” Farnon said.
‘That’s how it all started, out of me doing nothing and being bored. I’ve been writing arrangements and composing for years. I absolutely love it. I love it so much. I think I’d die if I didn’t do it. My mother told me, ‘Brian, don’t you ever take anything seriously,’ and I don’t. If I can’t have fun, laugh and kibitz, I don’t want to do it. Rehearsals are fun nights. We laugh and kibitz and get all the work done. I can’t abide people who take the attitude, ‘I can’t do that, I am a classical musician.’ That’s why I do this. I am an idiot,” he said.
For keyboardist Al Sutton, who turns 85 in May, the weekly rehearsals are a chance to play.
“There is so little actual work playing anymore, I am happy to play anywhere,” he said. “One other thing I am doing is playing rehearsals for a ballet class right here in Gardnerville.”
Sutton got his first musicians’ union card in 1935 and has been playing ever since. He joined the service in World War II and played with the Navy band.
After the war, Sutton returned to his home in Chicago, then decided it was time to head West. Eventually, he met up with Farnon at Lake Tahoe where he lived and performed for 27 years before moving to Gardnerville four years ago.
n Too much snow. “We had a nice home up at the Lake. We loved it very much,” he said. “But we’re old now. Shoveling snow and taking care of the place got to be too much. We got to the point where we decided we didn’t like the winters anymore, so we moved down here.”
Sutton still tries to practice every day.
“At my age, the technique goes away if you don’t use it,” he said. “Listen, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m glad to be able to do what I am doing.”
Along side the veterans with their decades of experience are several students.
The youngest performer is 11-year-old Joshua Mindrum, a Carson City flute player. He sits between his father, Greg, who plays the oboe and his flute teacher, Carol Grenier of Carson City.
“I would follow Brian anywhere,” Greg Mindrum said. “He is so encouraging.”
The orchestra includes Douglas County Controller Claudette Springmeyer, who plays stand-up bass.
“It’s a great way to relax from work, although some people might not call it relaxing,” she said. “When I play, I can’t think about anything else – not work, not anything – just the music,” Springmeyer said.
“There are so many professionals in this group. We are so honored for them to allow us novices to play with them and that they put up with us,” she said.
The orchestra plays an arrangement from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.”
“This is going to be absolutely beautiful,” assures Farnon.
“No musician I know of ever made a mistake on purpose,” said Farnon at the conclusion of rehearsal.
“I do love all of you and hope to see you next week.”
If you would like to join the Carson Valley Pops Orchestra, rehearsals are Monday nights from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the CVIC Hall in Minden.
String musicians are asked to call Danny Yale, 782-7459.
Anyone with a piano to donate to the CVIC Hall may call Al Sutton, 265-6931.
For other information, contact Claudette Springmeyer, 782-9097 or 782-8679.
Listeners are welcome at all rehearsals.