Raising his baton to signal the start of rehearsal, conductor Alvin Mills surveyed his orchestra. "There are no flutes tonight," he said. "What happened to our flutes?"
Receiving no reply, Mills shrugged. "Tonight, you must imagine the flutes," he told his musicians. And, turning to a group of spectators, he smiled and explained, "We get all the parts eventually and, finally, by the performance, they all arrive at one time."
Humor and optimism are typical of Mills--and essential to his role as founder and conductor of the Brentwood-Westwood Community Orchestra. For 33 years, this amateur ensemble has balanced Bach with bus schedules and Wagner with the workaday world of its part-time musicians, most of whom earn their money in offices instead of concert halls.
The orchestra does have a few professional musicians, most of whom sit in just for the fun of it, although some are hired by Mills to steady the ranks during performances.
Such an eclectic range of talent and background sometimes makes the community orchestra seem a bit off key or off the wall. A rehearsal for a March production of "Cosi Fan Tutti" was no exception.
At the rehearsal, an elderly violinist leaned forward, frowning and peering closely at his music for the Mozart opera.
"Where does it say that?" he demanded querulously in response to one of Mills' instructions.
Barely missing a beat, Mills explained that the orchestra was skipping some of the music.
When a musician makes a mistake, Mills handles the situation with aplomb.
"I go back eight measures beyond the difficult passage . . . so the man (who made the mistake) has a second turn. He doesn't know that it is for him.
"The second time he plays it correctly and nobody is singled out as playing a mistake. I say, 'Look, we do the best we can. I want you to feel wonderful.' "
The cherubic Mills has developed a friendly, caressing manner of conducting. His musicians are his students and his job is to help them feel confident and good about their performances, he said.
"Some community orchestras have severe (audition) tests. I say, if you can't play in concerts, come to the rehearsals. It helps you, it helps us.
"I say, if you are not able to play it all, play the part you can."
Most of the orchestra members, such as clarinetist Leah Bergman, appreciate such flexibility because their skills as well as their practice time sometimes are limited.
To them, the musical camaraderie is worth the hard work and hectic schedules. "I would feel terrible if I wasn't doing this," said Bergman, a West Los Angeles deputy district attorney. "The longest break I've taken from the orchestra was the six weeks when I was studying for the Bar."
Bergman said she fell in love with classical music when she was in junior high school and began to study the clarinet. The orchestra provides an outlet for her musical talent and contact with the world of classical music performers, she said.
Although Mills said Bergman is an excellent musician, the clarinetist said she never believed that she was good enough to play professionally. "I'm an amateur, but I feel playing next to other people really helps," Bergman said. "I play lots better when I play with professionals."
One professional is violist Malcolm Heuring, 92. He is married to Mills' mother and was playing an instrument, the cornet, even before his stepson was born.
Heuring said he carried his cornet when he rode into Mexico in the early 1900s with the U.S. 1st Cavalry. He played professionally until the 1930s and has played regularly since then with community bands and orchestras.
When Heuring's lip went bad at about age 88, it was Mills who coached him in his efforts to learn the viola.
Another professional is semi-retired bassoonist Mel Tax, who performed on Broadway, on television and in movies and with Paul Whiteman and other big-name orchestra leaders.
Tax does more than just play music. He is the heart of the bassoon section, showing up at nearly all the rehearsals.
His presence at rehearsals "helps the less experienced woodwinds play their parts. They usually don't get to play with professionals until one day before the performance," Tax said. That kind of two-part harmony pays off. "When you put a nonprofessional who loves what he is doing with a professional who has expertise, they inspire one another," conductor Mills said. "It gives heart and soul to the music."
Times music writer Daniel Cariaga agrees. He said people who have not heard the Brentwood-Westwood and other community orchestras are missing "a very pleasant experience . . . great music, real music" in their own neighborhoods.
"Young players coming up who will be professionals, or semiprofessionals who are heading for the conservancy or college get the experience they need (in community orchestras)," he said. Such groups "are the middle stage between school and the professional world."