When the Northern Maine Chamber Society Orchestra performs in Houlton on April 29 and Presque Isle on April 30, it will celebrate the talents of a composer who served as its conductor for nearly 20 years.
Featured in the society’s annual spring concert are compositions by Harrison Roper of Houlton, who led the orchestra from the mid-1980s until several years ago. Formed in 1984, the Chamber Society grew from an ensemble of strings into a small symphony of about 30 musicians, including wind instruments.
“It grew magically under Harry and Peter Shaffer [a society founder],” said Susann Herold of Fort Fairfield, the society’s president. “He is always reaching out to others.” Roper joined the group as a French horn player in 1986 and soon became its conductor, putting together concerts and providing music.
“When I moved to Maine I thought it was the end of a chance to play music,” Roper said recently. “I was wrong. Northern Maine is like a village. If anyone has a special interest, you will know about it.”
Roper, who will be 85 in May, was a tenured professor specializing in French horn in the music department at Westchester State College (now University), when and he and his wife, Marilyn, decided to move from Pennsylvania to Maine in 1982.
She was coordinator of the “War or Peace: 1976 Project” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, which was directed by Buckminster Fuller. As Quakers, they wanted “to lead a simpler life and to solve the dilemma of praying for peace and paying for war.”
A native of Georgia and graduate of Haverford College in suburban Philadelphia, he earned a master’s of music degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and sang for two years in the National Cathedral Choir. He was a member of the Air Force Band and the Singing Sergeants during the Korean conflict.
“Harry and Marilyn gave up a life,” said Larry Berz, a clarinetist in the northern Maine orchestra. “They surrendered tenured positions and came to Maine, and they didn’t waste any time organizing the musical cause.”
Berz called their move a gift and described Roper as “a champion of ordinary people,” one with “classy credentials.”
Solos by Berz and fellow clarinetist Sean Diette will be featured in Roper’s composition “Klesmer Concerto” in the upcoming concert. In another original work, “Andante,” Herold will play a violin solo and Rueline Geishecker of Houlton a cello solo.
“Harry’s music reflects what he sees around him, whether it is about Maine or teaching an idea to a young student,” said Herold. “His music is varied, colorful, entertaining and unique. He writes to suit the occasion and the group of musicians he is working with.”
Roper has enabled young musicians and amateur adults to participate in the Northern Maine Chamber Society by composing and rewriting music for varied levels of ability.
“Most music is written for European professionals,” Roper said. “I write music for the skill levels of the people involved. I try to make it playable.”
His deep admiration for the “work ethic, history and continuing cultural awareness” of the Acadian people of Maine’s St. John Valley inspired him to compose “Un Bucherion Songeur (In the Valley) based on ballads and tunes he collected from the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and from Alfred Parent of Van Buren who, with his brother, made up fiddle tunes.
“I was so glad to meet Mr. Parent,” Roper said, adding that [local] people often didn’t value their own pieces. “Acadians told stories in songs of many verses,” and Roper has woven those songs into “Un Bucherion Songeur,” which is on the spring concert program.
“‘In the Valley’ begins with a sunrise,” he said. “I heard this music around me. You see a broad vista, the sunrise bursting forth upon a hill.”
“Harry’s compositions are inspired, playable and delightful to listen to,” said Geishecker. “He is incredibly prolific. He can knock them out so fast I can’t believe it.” She said he never takes money for his work and never says no when asked to play at nursing homes at Christmas and Mother’s Day.
Herold and Geishecker, both violin teachers, gave Roper ideas for composing the “Long Slur Samba,” another piece on next week’s program.
“The great sweeping motions with the bow are called long slurs,” he said, explaining the samba was created to help student players with their long slurs.
The performance also will include a tango that he wrote “in a great rush” in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and originally called “Last Tango in Fredericton.”
When New Sweden celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1995, Roper composed a “New Sweden Rhapsody,” which the Chamber Society performed at Thomas Park during the Swedish colony’s annual Midsommar Festival.
Later he wrote Swedish fiddle tunes with violinist Stephen Boody of New Sweden, and tunes based on traditional Swedish dances: langdans, hambo, vals and polska.
“Harry’s span of talents is amazing,” said Herold. “Over the years he performed in quartets, ensembles, orchestras and bands. Since he turned in his baton, he has continued performing with us on the French horn and occasionally on the viola. And being Harry, he has continued to rewrite parts, and compose music for different members of the orchestra.”
Berz described Roper as “a pillar for enhancement of the musical message” in northern Maine. “Harry has offered a legacy for the love of music in Aroostook County.”
Northern Maine Chamber Society concerts will begin at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 29, at the First Baptist Church in Houlton and at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 30, at the University of Maine at Presque Isle Campus Center.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.