Community ‘Players’ revived, with an overture to its orchestra’s renaissance

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The North Country Players Orchestra, a community-minded, all-volunteer musical group that was sidelined by the pandemic, is back and filling a musical void for both musicians and local music fans.

The roots of the North Country Players’ Orchestra go back to 2010 when it was a theater troupe, without the “orchestra” in its name. Its first endeavor was the staging of “1776” in July of that year at Gouverneur High School, which included a full volunteer orchestra. The NCP(O) put on a full-scale musical every year from 2010 until the lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group was primary focused on singing and theatrical performances, but now has an expanded objective.

To help boost that objective, NCPO will host a “Star Dust Diner” fundraiser at 6 p.m. Friday, April 14 at the Trinity Episcopal Church parish hall. Tickets to the dinner and entertainment event are $50 each.

The April 14 fundraiser has a theme based on Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a retro 1950s’ theme restaurant at 1650 Broadway on the southeast corner of 51st Street in Theater District in Manhattan. It is known for its singing waitstaff, with many of those workers going on to have successful careers on Broadway and elsewhere.

“The entertainment part of the dinner goes through the whole dinner service,” said NCPO founder and orchestra director Richard R. Haynes. “The music never stops. There will always be somebody performing.”

The NCPO singers will be joined by piano accompaniments and pre-recorded orchestrations. Funds for the dinner will help the nonprofit NCPO get back on its feet and to provide its members with opportunities to perform both musically and dramatically.

The mission of NCPO began in 2010 when Mr. Haynes co-founded it when he taught music at Gouverneur Central School. Mr. Haynes’s wife, Jennifer, was also teaching at Gouverneur at the time.

“We had all these students who were graduating from high school and a lot of these kids, especially in the Gouverneur area, didn’t have anywhere to play,” Mr. Haynes recalled. “You spend time since fourth or fifth grade learning an instrument and you graduate and then your horn or violin goes into a closet, and that’s it.”

So the founders of NCPO sought an outlet for those former students that would allow them to continue to perform and to make music as amateur musicians.

“But we realized there was a whole group of people in the community of all ages who wanted to continue, wanted to find reasons to play,” Mr. Haynes said. “People dusted off horns out of their closets that hadn’t been played in 20 years.”

In addition to participants from the Gouverneur area, people from communities such as Potsdam and Canton joined in, and together members had a versatile background, from a pediatrician to recent high school graduates.

“It became kind of this eclectic mix of people of all ages and abilities,” Mr. Haynes said. “It’s pretty fun to see a father/son or a mother/daughter or the town pediatrician next to a patient. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to involve a cross-section like that very often.”

In addition to its regular musicals, NCPO performed a winter pops concert in its inaugural year and began a tradition of performing concerts before the Fourth of July fireworks at the Gouverneur fairgrounds. Mr. Haynes saw those concerts as a “throwback to the turn of the century when each community had its own band.”

But the COVID-19 pandemic paused the momentum of the NCPO.

Mr. Haynes is now the band teacher at Altmar-Parish-Williamstown School District. His wife, Jennifer, teaches music at Sherman and North elementary schools at the Watertown City School District. The Chaumont residents are both members of Musica Viva, a chamber choir, at Trinity Episcopal Church. Around the time of Musica Viva’s December’s concert, Mr. Haynes became discouraged to learn that the SUNY Jefferson Orchestra, a credit-bearing course whereby community members could join, had folded. Together, the SUNY Jefferson Orchestra course and SUNY Jefferson Wind course and members of the community composed the SUNY Jefferson Orchestra and SUNY Jefferson Wind Ensemble. The ensemble performed a concert for the community, admission free, twice a year, at the end of spring and fall semesters. Their last concert was held in December 2019, after which they didn’t regroup.

“The folks who were playing in that orchestra suddenly found themselves without a place to play,” Mr. Haynes said. “Immediately, it was like 2010 all over for me again — here’s another group of people who don’t have a place to play anymore.”

Mr. Haynes placed new emphasis on the orchestra aspect of the NCPO and sent inquiries to former SUNY Jefferson Orchestra members and other musicians in the area.

“Now, it’s going to be interesting to draw all these folks together from the various aspects of my experiences over the last couple of years and try to fold that into a cohesive group,” he said. “That’s what is unique about this particular evolution of the North Country Players Orchestra.”

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