STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY WILLIE DOCTO
Eleva Chamber Players brings joy and cultural enrichment to Central Vermont
and parts beyond with its uplifting chamber music performances.
Based in the idyllic town of Duxbury, Eleva Chamber Players is a nonprofit string chamber orchestra that has brought joy and cultural enrichment to Central Vermont and beyond. Founded in 2006, Eleva operates with a unique collaborative process, choosing music and musicians that offer an uplifting experience for its audiences. In addition to a recurrent summer performance series at the Moose Meadow Lodge, performances at the Inn at Round Barn Farm, and performances at multiple venues in Waterbury and the Mad River Valley, the Eleva Chamber Players have also performed at venues throughout Vermont, the Vermont State House in Montpelier, and numerous additional house concerts throughout the country.
Eleva’s roster of professional musicians from Vermont, New York, and the greater Northeastern region includes graduates of prestigious conservatories, such as Juilliard, Eastman, and San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Its musicians have performed with renowned orchestras, such as The Metropolitan Opera, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and The New York Philharmonic. As the Eleva Chamber Players prepare for two phenomenal orchestra concerts in November— one at the Waterbury Congregational Church on November 12 at 7PM, and one at the Inn at Round Barn Farm in Waitsfield on November 13 at 3PM— we at VERMONT Magazine had the privilege of speaking with Eleva’s founder, Willie Docto, about the past, present, and future of the organization. The Eleva Chamber Players’ commitment to creative expression runs deeper than the rushing waters of the nearby Winooski River, and the group’s undying passion for musical excellence remains as bold and brilliant as the sound of a finely-tuned violin.
An Overture of Inspiration
Eleva’s Founder, Willie Docto, gravitated towards music at an early age. Docto recalls: “I grew up in Tulsa, and I started to play music in the sixth grade. One day, a teacher came into my school. He gave us cards and told us to bring them home to our parents if we were interested in playing music. I brought home the card and told my parents that I wanted to play the flute. My parents said, ‘You have asthma— you should play the violin instead.’” After honing his violin skills for several years, Docto began taking lessons with a private teacher. He went on to play in the Tulsa Youth Symphony, and eventually earned a music scholarship at Oral Roberts University. Upon arriving at Oral Roberts University, Docto decided that he wanted to change paths and pursue a different career. “I knew that I wasn’t going to make a living as a professional musician. I transferred to Georgetown University in Washington, DC and changed my major, but I still brought my violin with me.”
Docto continued to play the violin, and he seized critical opportunities to grow his musical network. “I was able to get gigs playing at receptions and weddings in Washington, DC,” says Docto. “I formed a little quartet with three other students, and we performed at the National Theatre after they did a major renovation for their grand reopening.” Event attendants included Hollywood and Broadway impresarios, as well as famed politicians, such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Even though Docto never intended to become a professional musician, he was still able to help pay for his college expenses by playing the violin.
Docto’s experiences during his college years paved a path for his entry into the field of Arts Management and Orchestra Management. He elaborates: “After I graduated from Georgetown, I ended up working as the Manager of the Georgetown Symphony and the Virginia Chamber Orchestra, which is a professional orchestra. At the same time, I worked for an organization that is now called the League of American Orchestras. I was absorbing a lot of data and working with people who were leaders in the orchestra world.” During the years that he worked with those orchestras, Docto gained crucial management skills that served him well when he decided to create the Eleva Chamber Players. “I had experience as an event planner, a concert planner, a businessperson, and as a musician, so when I had the opportunity to form Eleva, it was fairly easy for me to bring it all together. I knew that it was something that I could manage.”
After moving to Vermont in 1996 with his husband, Greg Trulson, Docto began to make forays into Central Vermont’s classical music scene. In 2000, he started to play in a small orchestra at the Our Lady of the Snows Church in Woodstock, which hosts the annual “Messiah” concert during Woodstock’s “Wassail Weekend.” “It’s a big traditional winter event,” says Docto. “I got to play with a group of seven incredibly talented musicians at that event. After the performance, I was talking with a friend who drove down there with me. I looked over at my friend and said, ‘Wow! These guys are really good. I’d love to play with them more often.'” With every passing year that Docto played in Woodstock, his desire to play with some of Vermont and New England’s most talented musicians grew exponentially stronger. “One day, we decided, ‘Why not ask these people if they want to play more often?’ That’s when we decided to form Eleva. Some of the original musicians have transitioned since then, but all of Eleva’s original principal players came from that orchestra, including our Concertmaster, John Lindsay, who is retiring this year.”
Docto adds that John Lindsay’s contributions to the Eleva Chamber Players will be honored with special celebratory performances on November 12 at the Waterbury Congregational Church and November 13 at the Inn at Round Barn Farm. “John had a tremendous impact on the organization,” says Docto. “He has a way of getting a unique sound on his violin that I truly appreciate. The Concertmaster is a critical leader in any orchestra, and he has certainly been essential in creating our sound.” The tribute concert will feature a spirited performance of “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with a virtuosic violin solo from John Lindsay.
As Docto’s vision for the chamber ensemble began to gradually manifest, he enlisted the services of several additional musicians. “We had a principal violist from Boston, Scott Woolweaver, a principal cellist from the eastern side of Vermont, Linda Galvin, and a bass player, Lou Kosma, who played bass for many years at The Metropolitan Opera. He conducts the Vermont Philharmonic, so he had many connections in Vermont. When they all said, ‘Yes’ to the proposition, we realized that we had a real orchestra here.” From there, Docto continued to call additional people that he knew to recruit them into the Eleva ensemble, including a husband-and-wife duo of talented violinists from Manila’s Clarion Chamber Ensemble, Olga and Reginald Pineda, who now reside in New England.
Once Eleva’s principal musicians were in place, the real groundwork began. “It’s difficult to pay professional musicians when you’re just starting out as a nonprofit organization,” notes Docto. “To that end, one of our board members suggested that we hold a house concert in the Summer of 2006. It was a very fun event. There was food, drinks, and music, and everyone had a good time.” Over the next several years, the Eleva Chamber Ensemble replicated similar events in different locations across the United States, including a series of house concerts around Vermont, and additional concerts in Dallas, Tulsa, St. Paul, Chicago, and Washington, DC. “It worked out really well,” says Docto. “We still do house concerts to this day – but only here at the Moose Meadow Lodge. We’ve gotten a fairly large following, and people look for it every year. It’s become an annual tradition. A lot of second homeowners from the Mad River Valley come up for the concert. It’s part of their summer experience, and the concerts sell out fairly quickly.”
The Eleva Chamber Players’ most recent Music at Moose Meadow summer concert was held at Moose Meadow Lodge on August 18, 2022. (For more information on the Moose Meadow Lodge, see page 58). The sold-out event celebrated the music of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Hamlisch. It featured a stellar vocal performance by the gifted Boston-based soprano vocalist, Pamela Nions, and a solo tribute to Marvin Hamlisch by the virtuoso pianist, James Myers, the principal pianist for the Boston Lyric Opera.
A Culture of Collaboration
As Eleva continued to expand from a seven-piece ensemble to its current size as a larger 16 to 20-person orchestra, Docto was able to maintain successful relationships with the musicians by creating a professional music culture that was conducive to fruitful artistic collaboration. “Classical musicians have somewhat of a reputation of being demanding and being divas,” notes Docto. “In reality, a lot of them are very nice people—but they all have strong feelings about music.” Due to the fact that Eleva has a true collaborative process, everyone has the chance to speak up. Still, Docto adds, “There are others who may be a little more vocal than most, and sometimes may come off as abrasive. We don’t want that kind of atmosphere, so we try to choose people who work well in a collaborative group setting.”
Docto says that Eleva’s music selection process is also collaborative. “I always keep a list of ideas for pieces. I ask members to give me ideas, as well. Sometimes I don’t even have to ask. They’ll just say, ‘We should do this next year.’ I try to weed out the ideas that fall into a specific theme. Once we have that overarching theme, we can pick other music that will relate to it. It helps us with marketing, too, so I can put on my ‘business hat’ and figure out a way to package the concert to sell it.” Docto recalls that one of Eleva’s most successful concerts was a Latin-inspired concert, which was mostly centered around tango music. “Tango is a fantastic genre because it rides the line between classical music, dance music, and popular music. When we put together the tango concert, people got very excited about it. We hired two tango dancers from Vermont, who came and did a tango dancing demonstration before the concert. Several audience members ended up partnering up to tango dance, as well.”
Over the course of Docto’s musical career in Vermont, he has also played several concerts with the Montpelier Orchestra and the Vermont Philharmonic. “Vermont has an amazing classical music scene,” notes Docto. “There is so much going on here at all levels. You have the Vermont Symphony Orchestra at the top, and then you have great community orchestras in all parts of the state. There are a bunch of notable chamber groups, including the Champlain Trio, which is a wonderful group of women who play just fantastically. They’re three of the best musicians in the state. There are fantastic festivals, as well, like the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival in Colchester. I think part of that has to do with Vermont being such a beautiful destination to play in – people just want to come here to perform.”
As Eleva continues to move forward with developing new musical programming and planning future concert series, Docto is grateful for the support that he has received from concertgoers, music lovers, and community members in Vermont— and he is excited for what the future holds. “I have found that people in Vermont are hungry for high-quality cultural experiences. They are very generous in supporting cultural organizations, as well. People in Vermont feel connected to where they live, and they want to make sure that the quality of life is high here. We’re always looking to build our audience, so if people want to hear some really good classical music performed by talented professional musicians in Vermont, we encourage them to come to our concerts! I personally believe that nature does something to the spirit. It inspires us, soothes us, and brings us peace. Here in Vermont, the fresh air and the beauty of the leaves on the trees make us feel more connected to the world around us. That’s what Eleva Chamber Players is all about: using music to inspire and uplift the spirit. What better place to do that than Vermont?”
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