Larkin Sanders is a Branson native who has just completed her Doctor of Music degree in clarinet performance from Florida State University. She is also a noted composer and arranger. And she's the founder, Executive and Artistic Director, and resident clarinetist, of the Taneycomo Festival Orchestra, a non-profit organization that presents a FREE two-week concert series of classical music in the Branson every June. It's now in it's fifth season, and Larkin says she was inspired to create the Festival while still in graduate school at Michigan State University.
"I had a very close friend named Claire, who started a similar festival in her hometown in rural Wisconsin. She invited me to attend as the clarinetist and resident composer. And I was so inspired by her product and by what she was doing. And I realized that a similar thing could function in Branson--I also believed I could take it to the next level, that the town could support a whole orchestra festival. That's how the idea came together. I basically spent an entire year making plans, and learning how to do all the 'little things' that I needed to do"--specifically the administrative, financial and logistical elements. Larkin says she thinks it takes "a specific type of personality"--which she happens to possess.
The entire Festival, all two weeks of it, is free and open to the public. "We don't charge admission at the door, but we do accept donations during the concerts. We write a lot of grants. A lot of our fundraising is done with in-kind donations. For example, our musicians travel in from all over the country, and we give them places to stay with host families, and we feed them--almost every meal they eat is donated to the Festival." The roster of musicians this year includes 84 participants, most of whom are music-conservatory students, as well as university music faculty members and a number of professional musicians. Larkin Sanders says they'll present 16 concerts this year, a number she finds both exciting and daunting. "It doesn't seem humanly possible that you can fit 16 concerts into a two-week time span!"
The concerts, she says, try to "cover basically every spectrum of classical or 'art' music", and that includes a jazz orchestra, which began at last year's festival. "It was a great success, and I think it's a really fun way to tap into another audience that might not know we exist."
In addition to including various musical traditions during the festival, Larkin inadvertently started a different kind of "tradition" at the first performance of the first Taneycomo Festival Orchestra event in 2012. It involves shoes--or rather, the lack of them. "I was playing in a woodwind quintet, and I was wearing some really absurdly tall shoes--I'm talking five-inch platform heels They looked great. But I was trying to walk around the Vintage Paris patio, and it's basically like cobblestone bricks." Long story short, Larkin managed to twist her ankle, and decided the cool-looking footwear "just wasn't worth it. So I took the shoes off" while she warmed up for the concert. Once the performance began, Larkin realized her absurdly tall shoes were sitting right out in the middle of the stage. "I mean, I grew up in the Ozarks, so naturally I grew accustomed to going many places and doing many things barefoot as a kid. But at the end of that concert, some audience members came up and told me how cool they thought it was that my shoes were on the stage! So I decided to leave my shoes off and put them on the stage for every concert, because it was kind of symbolic of the casual nature and atmosphere of our concerts. And I started finding money in them (!), and notes. And now some of the other orchestra members will leave their shoes onstage. If you come to an orchestra concert, you'll probably see shoes lining the entire length of the stage!"
This year's Taneycomo Festival Orchestra began on Sunday June 12, and I asked Larkin Sanders to give me a rundown of the rest of the scheduled performances. Friday night June 17 at 7:30pm is the first full orchestral concert. "We're calling it The Fate of TFO. The whole theme is 'fate.'" It includes Beethoven's 5th Symphony; the Grieg Piano Concerto; and the overture to Verdi's opera La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny). On Saturday June 18 there's a 2:00pm percussion-ensemble concert, and a string quartet program at 7:30. The Jazz Orchestra will give a big-band concert at Branson Landing Sunday June 19 at 7:00pm (all other evening performances are at 7:30). Monday the 20th it's a brass ensemble. Tuesday June 21st brings the Festival's children's concert. Wednesday the 22nd, a saxophone quartet. Thursday June 23rd will feature a concert by living composers. Friday the 24th, Larkin says, "is our themed concert of Music for Healing. We're playing all chamber music that has deeply impacted the lives of our musicians." The Grand Finale concert, Saturday June 25th at 7:30pm at Branson 1st Presyterian Church, features the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony.
Again, all concerts are free and open to the public, but donations are appreciated. For more information visit http://www.taneycomofestivalorchestra.org or call (417) 294-0500.
Now that Larkin Sanders has completed her D.M., what does she plan to do? "I fancy myself a musician who wears many hats. So I'm planning to move to Kansas City in the fall and maintain a private studio of clarinet students, and continue composing and arranging professionally. I have a few groups I'm playing with... and whatever else the world offers up!" But she insists she'll continue to spearhead the Taneycomo Festival Orchestra every summer. "Of course! Yes, of course."