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35 Years of Music

McLean Orchestra kicks off 35th season.

Sylvia Alimena is one of those individuals who is lucky enough to wake up every morning and look forward to going to work.

"Orchestral music is my love," said Alimena, music director and conductor for the McLean Orchestra. "So to be able to conduct and play is double the happiness for me."

Alimena first picked up a French horn at the age of 9. She eventually began taking private lessons and when she was 15, she was awarded a full scholarship to study under Arthur E. Goldstein, formerly of the Chicago Symphony. She then went on to study music at Boston University where she was a student of Harry Shapiro of the Boston Symphony. She has been playing professionally since 1980, and has been a French horn player for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. since 1985. Today, playing the French horn for the National Symphony Orchestra is still her primary job.

In 1990, Alimena got her first taste of conducting when she was asked to take over as conductor for Brass of Peace, a scholarship program for high school students. She then went on to serve as musical director for the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra for 14 seasons. She was hired to be the conductor and musical director for the McLean Orchestra after wowing its Board of Trustees with her performance as a guest conductor four years ago.

"We did a search for a year," said Paul A. Frank, past president of the McLean Orchestra Board of Trustees. "Every concert was a different music director and she really impressed us."

Frank, who is vice president of 1st Service Bank in McLean, said that he believes Alimena's passion and talent ushered in a new era for the McLean Orchestra.

"It was a profound change," said Frank. "Sylvia changed the artistic quality of the orchestra and has done a wonderful, wonderful job."

Frank and his fellow board members are nothing short of effusive when singing the praises of Alimena. Phil Chung, president of the Board of Trustees, said that Alimena has "taken the orchestra upward with regard to its artistic side."

"Sylvia is hitting it right in stride, so artistically we are doing really well," said Chung.

Frank said that he has been impressed with Alimena's ability to bring out the best in the musicians.

"She also brought in a few people and augmented our ranks," said Frank. "She strengthened the sections and has also tackled the more difficult pieces."

As a past president and a member of the Board of Trustees, the quality of the McLean Orchestra is of great importance to Frank.

"My view has always been that I'm not interested in going out and raising money if our goal is mediocrity," said Frank.

The volunteer musicians in the McLean Orchestra are chosen through a rigorous audition process.

"Frankly it's a difficult one because the level of the orchestra is so high now that we're bringing in really talented people," said Alimena.

THIS WEEK Sylvia Alimena begins her fourth season as conductor and musical director for the McLean Orchestra. However, this year has particular significance because it marks the orchestra's 35th anniversary season.

"I think it's going to be a really joyful year," said Alimena. "We have a lot of music that everybody wants to hear, some great soloists and some opportunities to have fun while being at a concert."

To celebrate this special year, the McLean Orchestra will present an array of concerts designed to revisit the past and look ahead to the future. The season will kick off on Sept. 9 with a regional premiere of Joan Tower's "Made in America " which is "a celebration of the American spirit." This concert will also feature mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop.

"The regional premiere is a big thing for the orchestra," said Frank. "There are lots of orchestras that could have been selected to do this."

The season will continue with two holiday concerts on Dec. 9 and 10, featuring the "Trumpeter's Lullaby," Handel's "Messiah," and Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." The Dec. 10 concert will also be geared to young children.

"On Dec. 9 we're also having a holiday pops concert where we are inviting chorus members from churches around McLean to come in and sing along," said Alimena. "We'll be featuring everyone's favorite holiday pieces."

AFTER THE HOLIDAYS, the orchestra will perform what Alimena refers to as "War Horses — big, meaty pieces that people like to hear over and over again."

However, Alimena predicts that the April 28, 2007 "Night at the Movies" will be the most fun event of the season.

"It's a tribute to motion pictures which premiered in the season of the orchestra's inception, so 35-year-old films," said Alimena. "We chose all PG films because we are hoping to bring in as many whole families as we can."

During the first half of the concert, the orchestra will perform music from motion pictures that came out in during its first season in 1971 and 1972. For the second half, the orchestra will perform music from one of the six featured movies — "Summer of 42," "What's Up Doc?" "Return of the Pink Panther," "Cabaret," "Poseidon's Adventure" and "Man of La Mancha." The audience will decide on the movie by casting their votes.

"It's just part of getting everybody included," said Alimena. "I thought it would show that music can be fun and going to the orchestra can be fun."

The final concert of the season also involves audience participation. Audience members will select the concert program by voting on-line for their favorite piece from the McLean Orchestra's first season.

"Frankly, it's a great milestone for any orchestra to make it that long," said Alimena. "It's the 35th anniversary and we're focusing on creating as many opportunities as possible to include the community … it's a really big year and we want to show off how great the orchestra is."