During much of 2020 and 2021, one of the hardest hit sectors of the economy was the performing arts. Theaters, concert halls, studios – across the country and around the world, these spaces shut their doors and extinguished their lights in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting thousands of artists out of work and depriving audiences of the joys of live performance.
In the midst of this dire situation, a dazzling new venture appeared in northeast Oklahoma: the Tulsa Peoples’ Orchestra (TPO). Founded in spring 2021 by Benjamin Ray, the TPO’s mission is to unite, grow and inspire the Tulsa community with and through music. The orchestra acts on this mission by performing not in concert halls but in informal community spaces, such as parks, squares and even city streets.
Time to cello-brate
One of the earliest musicians to join the TPO was University of Tulsa vocal performance alumnus Jeremy Wright (BM ’18), who describes himself as “a cellist in need of an ensemble. Ray’s passion project came along at exactly the right time for me, and I was thrilled to be a part of the TPO adventure.”
As a Tulsan who wants to grow his city’s arts community in new and creative ways, Wright is “delighted that we can appeal both to seasoned classical music listeners as well as people who have never been to an orchestra concert.”
In addition to playing cello with the orchestra, Wright serves as its peoples’ outreach officer. Drawing on his extensive network in the classical music community, such as singing with Tulsa Opera and at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wright focuses on recruiting new players, contacting venues to schedule performances, reaching out to local business to identify collaboration opportunities and spreading the word about the TPO throughout Tulsa and the region.
His TU foundation
These activities are empowered, in great measure, by Wright’s experiences being part of vocal ensembles during his TU student years. “By observing my professors’ work ethic and general attitude, I learned to cultivate a positive culture in groups.”
One of those professors, Brady McElligott, recalls Wright’s talent and future promise: “When Jeremy first auditioned for the vocal faculty, we all immediately fell in love with his vocal instrument and his innate musicality — and then we discovered that he was also a cellist! We unanimously recommended him for one of the School of Music’s most prestigious scholarships at the time (a “Golden”), which he definitely deserved.”
McElligott also is not surprised by his former student’s involvement in bringing the joy of music to Tulsans: “Given the interest and energy that Jeremy showed as a student regarding so many aspects of music and musical performance (including arranging and orchestration), I did not imagine he would ever be the type of person who would simply sit around and socialize after graduation. I expected him to organize something practical and useful, and his work with the TPO is exactly the type of community/music project I would have expected. I would not be shocked if he were to arrange and orchestrate much of the music the orchestra will perform!”
Wright has also drawn on his TU foundation to help the TPO to grow through recruiting players and networking through his former professors. In fact, a handful of TU students joined the TPO in 2021, including Jacob Malone (trumpet), Megan Kesterson (oboe), Kyle Barker (trombone), and Emma Dawson, Cole Cribbs and Sam Sharrell (percussion).
A breath of fresh air
While the TPO followed COVID-19 safety protocols for its indoor rehearsals, all its concerts were held outdoors. Indeed, for Wright, “music is that much more magical outside in nature. Our concerts were literally a breath of fresh air for our audiences. People made it clear to us that they missed hearing live music and wanted it to be part of their daily culture.”
During its inaugural season, the TPO comprised 45 musicians, ranging in age from 18 all the way to 72. The orchestra is similarly inclusive when it comes to the repertoire – one might hear Beethoven and Star Wars in the same concert — and instruments. “Whereas orchestras typically do not allow saxophones, euphoniums or bass clarinets,” Wright explained, “we say if you are proficient in your instrument and share our passion, you’re welcome here!”
And if you are a musician who’s seeking a welcoming community and opportunities to perform, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The TPO’s musicians also were thankful for the opportunity being part of the orchestra provided. For some, COVID-19 had meant not being able to perform publicly for over a year. A good number, too, were hobbyists who had not performed for many years. For them, said Wright, “it was very meaningful to provide a space where they could dust off their instruments and refresh their love of making music.”
Season 2, here we come!
The biggest lesson Wright and his fellow musicians learned from their first season was how important their project is to Tulsans. Drawing on this insight, in 2022, the TPO plans to deliver twice as many performances – including at this year’s Tulsa Mayfest — and collaborate even more with organizations and businesses across the city, as well as host a number of fundraising concerts.
“We are also raising the bar in terms of quality by bringing in conductors and players from the Tulsa Symphony to work with different sections during our rehearsals,” Wright commented. “Being part of the TPO and helping it to grow reminds me every day that community is everything, and especially so during difficult times.”
Does music inspire and delight you? If so, visit TU’s School of Music, where opportunities to learn and play abound for students from across the university, no matter which major they’re pursuing.