Some musicians love to perform; others prefer rehearsals. For OLLI Orchestra violist Gregory Geraldo, rehearsal time is “sacred.”

OLLI Violists Sophia Roach and Gregory Geraldo
OLLI Violists Sophia Roach and Gregory Geraldo

OLLI Orchestra has performed continually since 1978. Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) adopted the group in 2005. Musicians live locally and pay a fee to join the group. OLLI is multi-generational. The youngest musician this year is 12; the oldest is over 80.

Geraldo teaches English and Music at Sierra Academy for Expeditionary Learning, a college-prep high school in Nevada City. He conducts a two-week music-intensive session that includes an exploration of genres.

The only family member to play music, Geraldo began playing violin in the third grade. His family bought a violin using time-payments. “The day I got home from high school and told mom I wanted to switch to viola, I remember the shocked look on her face. She had just made the final payment of the violin. That began a new payment plan.”

He continues to play viola. “I like to be of use. Violas provide body for the orchestra. I deeply love the sound of the viola.” He still has that first violin. “I take it out occasionally to experiment.”

 “OLLI is the only formal music setting where I get to be a student,” says Geraldo. “The music is just right for my level. Every semester, one piece challenges me and forces me to practice something I may have forgotten. Getting into that groove and really feeling it on the difficult parts—I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”

Geraldo has two answers to the question of what brings him the most pleasure. “First, it’s the community, coming together with other people who start out as strangers. Everyone is kind, and happy to be there. All of us are there because we want to be there.”

Secondly, he says, “As a full-time teacher, I work with teens all day. It’s challenging. I’m always thinking about the students, lessons, and grades, and how we can improve. But for the two hours of rehearsal on Monday nights, I get to enter a different space, sealed off from the world. I lock in. I’m there just for the music. The setting for OLLI allows for that to happen in a stress-free way. That time is sacred.”

Maestro Wayland Whitney, OLLI Orchestra’s conductor, is a professional violist. He reports that more inside jokes are made about violists than about any other musician. He quips: “How do you keep your violin from getting stolen? Put it in a viola case.”

Viola jokes originated in the eighteenth century. Violas at the time were mainly used for relatively easy parts and as accompaniment. Find hundreds of viola jokes online but don’t tell them to violists—they’ve heard them all, Whitney admonishes with a smile. “What’s the only thing a violinist can do better than a violist? Play the viola.”

OLLI Orchestra violist Sophia Roach originally studied violin. “I switched to viola within two months of starting the violin. The violin was too high-pitched for me,” she says. “I’m glad I switched. Viola is a very special instrument.” She played bass and viola with OLLI beginning in 2017.

Sophia says, “I really like playing with OLLI. When we’re rehearsing together, it brings me so much joy to hear how beautiful it sounds. I just have to smile. Everyone, in fact, seems so happy to be there. The atmosphere is so peaceful.”

OLLI’s spring concert is dedicated to Joyce Berthiaume, a violinist now retired from the orchestra. “I’ve been in orchestras since I was six years old,” she states. “That’s 80 years of playing violin!” She and her late husband, Dan Berthiaume, joined the group soon after moving here in 1999. The orchestra gratefully acknowledges Dan’s long tenure as first-chair trumpet and also the musicianship of Anne Callaway, who passed away this year. She played flute with the orchestra for nearly two decades.

OLLI Orchestra’s concert “Mozart, Mason, and More” takes place at 2 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room at Sierra College, 250 Sierra College Dr., Grass Valley, on Sunday, May 7. Parking is free and there will be signs at the college entrance pointing to Multipurpose Room N12. Although the concert is free, you must register for tickets. Tickets are limited. Visit OLLI Orchestra’s website for complete concert details and a link to free tickets.