Edgar Muenzer remembers when he first felt drawn to classical music.
Though his father was a professional violinist and his mother a concert pianist, it was in a small, two-classroom schoolhouse in 1930s Iowa City that Muenzer recalls hearing the sounds of the classics from the school’s only two teachers.
“They always played classical music,” he recalled. “I can remember hearing Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” things now associated with “Fantasia,” like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and some Beethoven symphonies, especially Beethoven’s Fifth. I remember those things that played in class and they stuck in my mind as a kid.”
Muenzer would go on to follow his father’s footsteps by becoming a classically-trained professional violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a career he would hold for 47 years. But it was nearly 20 years ago that he brought his talents closer to home by launching the Park Ridge Civic Orchestra with his wife, Nancy.
As the curtain prepares to open on the Civic Orchestra’s 20th season Oct. 30, Muenzer’s time with the orchestra is approaching a decrescendo. He plans to retire from his conductor and music director duties following a farewell concert next spring. He’ll pass the baton full-time to his son, Victor, a Grammy Award-winning music producer.
“Twenty years is enough,” Edgar Muenzer admitted, as Nancy noted the physical toll that conducting often takes. “I’m going to be 86. That’s enough. It’s very tiring conducting a concert.”
Muenzer’s last concert at the conductor stand, entitled “Spanish Guitar and Don Juan,” is scheduled for March 12.
Other guest musicians appearing this season include acclaimed violinist Rachel Barton-Pine (who first performed as a soloist with the orchestra very early in her career), pianist Matt Haider (taking on the Pickwick’s famous pipe organ), guitarist Ann Waller, vocalists Jessye Wright and Larry Adams, and pianist Leah Dominy. A choral group from Emerson Middle School is also scheduled to perform during the Dec. 4 Holiday Pops concert.
The idea for starting a homegrown civic orchestra to play locally began when Edgar Muenzer was leading a small chamber orchestra at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, in addition to his CSO responsibilities and teaching positions.
“One day Nancy and I were sitting in the Pickwick Theatre … and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to hear classical music in this theater?” Edgar recounted.
The couple tossed the idea around with residents they knew, including local philanthropist Marilyn Goll.
“We had a meeting at Marilyn Goll’s house and everyone threw in some money to get us started,” Nancy said.
“But the key to starting this was that everybody in the orchestra would have to (play) for one year free, no pay,” Edgar added.
The musicians Edgar encouraged to join agreed, and the Park Ridge Civic Orchestra was officially born.
Today, all musicians and soloists are paid for their performances during the five-month orchestra season. Funds are raised largely through donations and sponsorships and, despite the economic downfall and the elimination of financial contributions from the city of Park Ridge, the orchestra has managed to remain on solid financial footing.
“We have been blessed with excellent funding,” said Deborah Oberschelp, the civic orchestra’s executive director. “There are people in the community who have been very generous.”
Everything — from the floral decor that lines the Pickwick stage to the musicians’ seats and music stands — is the responsibility of the Civic Orchestra. The group also pays rent to the Pickwick Theatre for concerts and office space on the second floor.
“If we could have sold out the theater every time, we wouldn’t have had to bother raising much money,” Edgar says. “But it’s almost impossible in this town, or any small town, to raise enough money to support the orchestra from ticket sales.”
“They never cover it. Even downtown,” Nancy added.
The reason, says Edgar, is that classical music does not reach the heights of popularity that other musical styles do today. Plans for the orchestra’s future, under the direction of Victor Muenzer, include incorporating more popular music into the concert, he said.
The opening concert of the 20th season actually draws from pop culture, with its Halloween-themed night entitled “Tricks and Treats with the Mighty Organ,” on Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. Performances include the Bach’s haunting pipe organ piece “Toccata and Fugue in D minor”; Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” and the “Harry Potter Suite” by John Williams.
“We’re planning to have the lights down and the organ rising out of the pit with a fog machine while playing Bach is played,” promised Oberschelp. “It should be fun for all ages.”
Other non-musical civic orchestra events this season include a program at the Park Ridge Country Club on Nov. 2 entitled “Mary Todd Lincoln: Preserve the Union,” and the 13th annual Gala on March 1 at Cafe la Cave in Des Plaines, where the Muenzers will be honored.