Last Saturday night, the ArMack Orchestra hosted its 12th Annual Gala Dinner at the Arcata Community Center. When I told friends I was attending a "gala," they likened it to attending a ball, asking if I would wear taffeta and a corsage. Not quite. This gala's theme was "Humboldt on the Bayou," and for $30 a ticket the flier promised a three-course meal, a silent auction, and a concert — no dancing involved.
There were high school students involved, though, young men with bad haircuts dressed in tuxedos and young women in updos slathered in all black. I was told by an orchestra piano player, Molly, that each member had been assigned a job, whether it was busing tables, serving food or delivering plastic cups of glowing red punch (not spiked, of course). Perhaps the most charming part of the night was watching these teenagers walk aimlessly from table to table, uncertain whether to refill our drinks or just stare at us with confusion. This had to be their first introduction to the service industry, but fortunately, they had easy customers: parents, teachers, classmates and friends.
Admittedly, I balked at the idea of an elegant dinner in a gymnasium at first. My seat marked the three-point line on the basketball court, and the napkins matched the maroon mats lining the walls. However, volunteers had taken great pains to set each table with elegant details, like branches adorned with green lichens and glass candle holders filled with sand. Upon arriving, I was a little envious that the table next to mine still had a full plate of devilled eggs; ours had only two left. Not exactly $30 fare, but this affair wasn't about the money. It was about raising money. Apparently, any funds raised support orchestra functions, including a spring trip to London where they play in an international competition. Impressively, they won first place last year.
From Shaelyn Thomas, an Arcata High student, I learned that instead of hiring caterers, the parents cook. This is no small task, considering they had set up tables in every square inch of the room and people milled about elbow to elbow. Luckily, local businesses donated food; Cypress Grove, for example, donated the goat cheese that accompanied every appetizer plate. If I needed any more proof that Arcata is a community-driven town (and I didn't), Daisy Dalton, proud mother of an orchestra member, gave it to me. "There are parents volunteering tonight whose kids have been gone for ten years," she said, "and they're still volunteering." That's dedication.
After hearing the actual orchestra play, however, I understood the dedication a bit better. I'm not a classical music critic, but the flawless, deep sounds emanating from the stage shocked me. All those gawky servers had transformed into a soulful whole, a magical symphony of maestros. These kids could have been playing in the pit at Les Miserables,or on the soundtrack for the next Indiana Jones movie. They were that good. Perhaps Carol Jacobson, the orchestra director, deserves all the credit. While I never chatted with her, I did watch her lead the symphony to melodious success. Like the captain of a pirate ship, she barked out orders, but using only her body, her hands and her wand. With her sparkly sleeves jumping to the beat, she had the attention of every musician on that stage, a thundering presence to be admired.
While I will probably never get in the habit of eating on a basketball court, I could easily get in the habit of listening to the ArMack Orchestra's beautiful sound. Bring on the punch.