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Lasting harmony

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[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Helen Boyle, 81, a performer with the Tampa Bay Symphony, has fought cancer for the last three years but continues to play the violin.

By MARINA BROWN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 26, 2001


The Tampa Bay Symphony blends old and young volunteer musicians and energizes them all.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jack Heller, the conductor of the Tampa Bay Symphony, wipes a handkerchief across his forehead. "Take 15 minutes, then come right back for the Wagner and the Copland," he calls.

The Scheherazade has gone well, and the musicians talk, laugh, stretch and retune their instruments in the casual cacophony of a large volunteer orchestra that enjoys what it's doing, producing four major programs in each of the area's three orchestral venues.

As the break begins, sound is everywhere. From the brass section, a twentysomething trumpeter annoys a colleague with a bombastic trill. A flutist, expecting her first child, seems to meditate with deep breathing.

Members of the cello section, draped across the backs of their chairs, swap stories of school-age children. Here and there, bobbing white heads and the occasional cane reveal an even richer weave of experience -- and of great commitment.

Tonight, Helen Boyle wears a pink turban. "The wig is okay but hot," she says. She wrinkles her nose. She's a first violinist and shakes her head at the Rimsky-Korsakov score, black with notes. She is pale, much thinner than she used to be and wouldn't want to walk without the cane now. Boyle, 81, has fought the cancer in her bones for the last three years. "But I love playing," she says. "It's what keeps me going."

Often, at rehearsal break, she needs to lie on the stage in the auditorium at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines, where the group practices.

"But after the break, I'm concentrating so hard I sometimes don't even feel the pain," she says.

Her laugh is soft, and her wit is dry.

"Between my painting, calligraphy, ceramics and violin, my days are pretty full," she says. She has taught elegant brush calligraphy at recreation and art centers for years, and her paintings cover the walls of her home.

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Maurice Leysens, 89, has played and taught violin professionally for more than 70 years, including a stint as the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Nearby, Maurice Leysens rips his bow through a flashy cadenza and finishes with a bluesy riff. He's not keen about admitting he's 89. Leysens has played with more local orchestras than he can remember, including the Florida Orchestra and the Florida Philharmonic. His wife, Trixie, figures that, in a lifetime of playing, he's gone through "at least 16 tuxedos and probably far more conductors."

Known as a crusty, demanding teacher, he has played and taught violin professionally for more than 70 years, including a tenure as the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra. Today he is just as busy playing gigs at area nursing homes.

"You know, everything was fine until Mozart ate my violin," Leysens says. His 3-year-old German shepherd recently gnawed off a large piece of his 160-year-old Ceruti violin, and Leysens was playing an inferior instrument.

Each Tuesday, 85 to 90 musicians drive from as far away as Palm Harbor and Brandon to rehearse with the Tampa Bay Symphony.

"It's all about the music," says Barbara Kass, a cellist. "There's nowhere else in the area where the qualities of conductor, musicians and raw enthusiasm come together like this."

Founded in 1986, today the Tampa Bay Symphony comprises physicians, lawyers, engineers, homemakers, students and retirees. It sponsors annual young artists competitions and makes more than 2,700 free tickets available to the community.

There's a burst of laughter from the rear of the hall. Across the room, a little woman in the second-violin section has snared two youngish percussionists. Wearing her signature flowered hat at a coquettish angle and flashing jet-black eyes, Bea Rose is telling the drummers, "Yes, I'm 90, probably the oldest one in here . . . but what a boyfriend I've got! He's 68 and gorgeous!"

Rose substituted in the Pinellas County school system until two years ago, when Jack, her husband of 60 years, died. The Brooklyn College grad has played violin "non-stop" since she was 12. "Do I ever intend to give it up?" she asks. "Darling, not while they can still carry me in!"

Maestro Heller raps his baton. There's last-minute chuckling, then, dutifully, the sections begin to take their places. Break over, they rattle reeds and try to locate harmonics with chords and arpeggios.

This season, a fixture is missing. For years, 96-year-old Philomene Ram, a tiny woman, bent but radiantly bright, occupied the fourth-violin chair closest to the audience. They serenaded her with Happy Birthday just last year.

"Indomitable," is how her stand partner saw her. Ram had played in up to three string quartets a day for years. "Haydn before lunch, Mozart before dinner and Boccherini as a nightcap," a friend remembers.

Now, having broken a hip, Ram lives in a nursing home. Some of her old playing partners occasionally take their instruments over, but it's not the same. She has difficulty remembering the notes now.

Dr. Joan Christie of the University of South Florida in Tampa has an interest in learning and cognition. She says that it has long been known that musical instruction at an early age can structure the brain in a manner that enhances learning, language and mathematical abilities. She stresses that stimulation of those pathways in later life, through music, the mental-muscle exercises of crossword puzzles or new learning is vital to cortical acuity.

Trixie Leysens, Maurice's wife, isn't thinking about the cortex. She's reminiscing: "Every Christmas we would have such wonderful fireside musicales. Helen Boyle would sing, we'd all nibble on cocktail weenies, and then everybody would pull out their instruments, and we'd play around the Christmas tree until the songs ran out. It was wonderful."

A 17-year-old horn player sat nearby listening. His hat was on backwards, an ear was pierced, and he was smiling sweetly at Helen Boyle and Trixie Leysens.

"My friends and I kind of do that, too," he said, "but just leave out the cocktail dogs." They laugh together.

He turns his hat around and leans toward them. "You guys are really great," he says. "I just hope I can be like you someday."

- Marina Brown is a cellist with the Tampa Bay Symphony. She is also a registered nurse and a case manager at the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. She lives in Treasure Island.

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