The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 12, 2004


Orchestra brings The Secret Garden to life

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Savoyard Light Opera Company's production of The Secret Garden, opening tonight and running through November 21 in the Corey Auditorium. This will be the group's last show performed in Carlisle.

A storm, ominous and threatening, is building. There's a flash of lightning, a rumble of thunder. As the tension and excitement mounts, the conductor's arms wave with greater intensity, his entire body swaying as he draws the emotion of the music from the musicians before him. He entices the menacing horns, the frantic flute, and the quivering strings. The percussionist adds the haunting ring of chimes. The storm convincingly arrives at Corey Auditorium, giving a listener chills, and then abates with the opening bars of the song "Lily's Eyes."

The orchestra is poised to play at a dress rehearsal for "The Secret Garden." Musicians include Carlisle School Band Director Thomas O'Halloran, with trombone, in the foreground. (Photo by Carolyn Armistead)

This is good stuff. The quality of this 20-piece orchestra is clearly evident within the first few notes of the overture for The Secret Garden, presented by the Savoyard Light Opera Company (SLOC), and opening tonight in Carlisle. Conducted by the show's music director, Fred Frabotta of Auburn, the professional quality of the orchestra has become a SLOC trademark.

Working with a full pit

"The core of this orchestra has played [for SLOC] for the past two decades. Some have played for every show," says Frabotta, who has extensive experience in vocal and instrumental music in the Boston area, including the Foothills Theater in Worcester. "This is an exciting job for me in the fall. A lot of what I do is Equity [professional] theater, and although the ensembles are good, they're usually small. This gives me a chance to have a full pit, the same size orchestra as you see on Broadway."

Stage director Corey Jackson experienced this firsthand in 2001 while playing the role of a gangster in the musical Kiss Me Kate. (SLOC audiences may remember him in the comedic song-and-dance version of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare.") He now says the orchestra is one of the reasons he decided to interview for the director spot. "For a show like this, they are responsible for telling a part of the story, a story that could not be told with a five piece pit. They have the job of creating and changing the mood drastically from scene to scene," he says. "The percussion plays as important a role in [the song] 'Fine White Horse' as the character of Martha, who's singing the song. The piccolo plays the part of the robin. SLOC is incredibly lucky to have such an amazing group of dedicated musicians."

As for the musicians themselves, most of whom perform throughout the year with other groups, this annual "gig" in Carlisle is something they look forward to every fall. "Everyone in this orchestra is a professional musician, who has studied for many years, and most play with their own orchestras too," says Marsha Gilbride of Fitchburg, a trumpet player who has played for SLOC for twelve years, and is currently serving her third year as orchestra manager. "We needed fewer brass musicians this year, and I had some people who were disappointed not to be playing. They consider this their 'fall thing'." Although these musicians also work in a wide variety of impressive day jobs (at MIT and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Youth Division, for example), "music is their pleasure, their pastime," says Gilbride, who teaches middle school band in Fitchburg and plays in her own quintet, called Paella Brass.

The part of the robin — the bird in the story who befriends Mary Lennox, leads her to the secret garden and eventually helps her find the key — is played by Susan Caplan of Canton, who mimics the sounds of the twittering robin from the orchestra pit on her piccolo. "I have never played an actual character before. It's fun to think of myself as perhaps an actor in the show," she says with a laugh. Caplan, who has played the flute for nearly 40 years and has performed with SLOC for the past three, describes the robin as "very opinionated and a little impatient, with a lot of vitality and joy." It was fun, she says, to discover that the musical score actually features the "dialogue" that the robin is speaking in his "conversations" with the characters, something that helps with her interpretation of the music. "I get to be sassy and I get to have fun. This is a total joy," she says.

Cellist Marsha Turin drives from Somerville and has done it consistently for about the past eight years. "There's a real sense of community here. It's a warm group, and they do a good job," says Turin, who teaches science in Boston by day and plays in a recently formed string quartet. "The conductor is wonderful to work with, and the actors seem to have a good time. It's a happy group, and it has been fun."

Not that the job doesn't have its challenges. Frabotta recalls an incident last year, when one of the lead sopranos skipped an entire verse of her solo. In spite of this glitch, Frabotta says the audience was none the wiser. "The orchestra simply skipped ahead. It was twenty-four people, all skipping ahead together to where they should be," he says.

It is the professional ability of this famed orchestra that helps the theater group attract top-notch vocalists to fill out its roles, Frabotta adds. "People come out of the conservatories and hear, 'If you go up to Carlisle, you can do Iolanthe with a full orchestra'," he says. "We had five women, all highly skilled sopranos, who auditioned [for that show] and could have carried the lead role. Not many community theaters can say that."

Audiences at all performances of The Secret Garden will be treated to the full sound of violin, flute, clarinet, oboe, trumpet, French horn, cello, bass, percussion and keyboard. It is important to point out that the keyboardist, Larry Williams, is an unsung hero, having also been the lone accompanist during occasionally grueling rehearsals over the past three months.

Conductor and music director Fred Frabotta. (Photo by Carolyn Armistead)

"Larry Williams has helped us out so much during this process," says Jackson. "He really went above and beyond and then some in learning not only the notes, but learning the correct tempos as this production progressed."

Now that the time has come for the director to back away and put the show completely into his performers' hands, Jackson feels certain that with the help of their top-notch musicians, they have a quality product to present. "They say it's important to make a good first impression," he says. "Well, the first thing the audience sees when they walk in is twenty musicians sitting there waiting to begin. Then they start to play, and the audience is immediately confident that they are in for something special."

Performances of The Secret Garden will be Fridays and Saturdays, November 12, 13, 19, 20 at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, November 14, 21 at 2 p.m., at the Corey Auditorium at the Carlisle School. Ticket prices for all performances are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors & students and $15 for children (12 and under). For tickets, call 978-371-SLOC (7562) or visit the website at

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito