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Pinellas Park Orchestra marks 50 years
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The Pinellas Park Civic Orchestra closes out its 50th anniversary season on Sunday, April 6, 7:30 p.m., at the Performing Arts Center.
PINELLAS PARK – In 2014, the Pinellas Park Civic Orchestra – the only orchestra of its kind that remains in Pinellas County – celebrates 50 years of making music, with the past two decades spent in Pinellas Park.

The orchestra will close out its 2013-2014 season Sunday, April 6, 7:30 p.m., at the Pinellas Park Performing Arts Center, 4951 78th Ave. N. The program will consist of music selections from light classical, show tunes and pop.

The performance is free, though donations are accepted.

In the beginning

In 1964, W. Dean Sisson founded the orchestra, then called the First Congregational Church Orchestra, at the First Congregational Church of St. Petersburg, located downtown, just a stone’s throw from Williams Park. At the time, there were only seven members of the group, which practiced at the church and played at the congregation’s events, often featuring hymn singers.

Over time, the orchestra grew, and when Sisson died after several years as conductor, the baton was passed to his wife, Marie Day. Eventually, a romance blossomed between Marie and the group’s French horn player, Clarence Day. The couple married and Marie led the orchestra until 1988, when she was forced to retire due to declining health.

Next, Michael Ficcocelli, a violinist, stepped up to take over as leader of the orchestra. When he retired in 1992, Richard Van Dommelen, a trombone player who was fairly new to the group, took on the role of conductor.

The move to Pinellas Park

In 1994, the First Congregational Church of St. Petersburg shut its doors after 106 years.

“The church went bankrupt and we had to leave,” said Van Dommelen. “And it was razed completely.”

Rather than break up, the orchestra decided to stay together, and were pointed in the direction of Pinellas Park, which offered them use of the Pinellas Park Auditorium, next to the police station, for free.

“And the character of the orchestra really began to change,” said current conductor Art Hansuld.

The orchestra lost members with the move, though, and had to build itself back up in its new home.

“We were hurting for strings something terrible the first couple of years,” Van Dommelen said.

“It was really a knock-down thing. The strings section got beat up a little.”

By 2008, the city had purchased a former Baptist church on 78th Avenue North and converted it into the Performing Arts Center. At the time, Largo, Tarpon Springs and other towns were building cultural centers, said Hansuld, and Pinellas Park wanted something similar of its own.

Government spokesperson Tim Caddell showed Van Dommelen the new space.

“You see this? This is yours. Your next concert will be in this building,” Caddell told Van Dommelen in 2008.

“The city has been a sweetheart,” Van Dommelen said.

With the new facility, which boasted a capacity of 400, compared to 150 at the auditorium, the orchestra drew larger crowds and eventually more members.

The orchestra today

When the orchestra first moved to Pinellas Park, it brought only around 25 musicians with it. Today, that number has doubled to around 50 members, and includes seasoned professionals, amateur players and high school students.

In 2010, Hansuld took over as conductor when Van Dommelen broke his leg. Under Hansuld’s leadership, the string section has grown and younger performers have joined the orchestra. Van Dommelen now conducts the first concert of the season every October

“Art has a lot of connections and a lot of energy,” said June Van Dommelen, first chair violin player, concert master and wife of Richard Van Dommelen.

She credits Hansuld’s efforts with the orchestra’s growth.

New musicians join every month, and it’s grown a robust strings section, partially thanks to summer strings workshops, led by Madge Ladd, that began two summers ago.

“It’s a great little orchestra,” Richard Van Dommelen said. “There’s really nothing like it in Pinellas anymore.”

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