National Repertory Orchestra: Making Music in Breckenridge

When Indiana University music major David Waldman heard that his 10-minute private violin audition won him a spot in the National Repertory Orchestra, the first thing he thought was that he wouldn’t have to go home and look for a summer job. The gig would put him in the Colorado mountains for the summer, and that was just fine with him.

The second thing that crossed his mind was that he’d get great orchestral experience. Both expectations were fulfilled, and Waldman has been playing professionally with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for 15 years.

“Playing in the NRO was a lot of fun in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Waldman said. “It was the best orchestra I’d ever played in, and I learned all the orchestral repertoire that I’d ever need to know. In those two seasons, I played every major violin orchestral excerpt from standard pieces.”

The NRO is comprised of 88 crème de la crème plucked from more than 800 applicants from leading music schools around North America. From late June to mid-August, the ensemble performs two full orchestra concerts each week in Breckenridge. Members also take part in smaller chamber concerts during the season, and the full orchestra plays at several other venues in the state, including schools and hospice centers. NRO alumni also play in every major and regional orchestra in the U.S. and in orchestras around the world

Summer of 2020 marked the celebration of the NRO’s 51st year. Waldman’s summers with the group were in the early ‘90s when it was based in Keystone. He started his first season June 16, 1991, his 21st birthday. The Colorado Children’s Chorale performed in a joint concert with the NRO opening night.

Waldman’s summers with the group were in the early ‘90s when it was based in Keystone. He started his first season June 16, 1991, his 21st birthday.

“It was an easy place to make friends who all had the same aspirations. We practiced a lot and slept hardly at all. We ate meals together, shared really small rooms and bathrooms. It was tight quarters, but we were all in it together so we had a lot of fun.”

Fun is an important element for the musicians, who adhere to rigorous rehearsal and performance schedules. Thanks to volunteers in an organization called Community Link, musicians are matched with local “parents” and taken on outings such as hiking, biking, rafting, picnics and sporting events in their free time. Musicians are given a modest food allowance and lodging at the expense of the NRO.

A retired musician named Walter Charles founded the organization in Estes Park in 1960 under the name of Blue Jeans Symphony. His vision was to bring young musicians to Colorado for a tuition-free intensive orchestral experience — a concept that has not wavered in 50 years. He may not have realized how significant and far-reaching his vision turned out to be.

“The people I played with are now tops in their fields,” said University of Denver music teacher Richard Slavich, an alumnus from 1972 and 1973. “This is a destination dream gig for every music student in America. I can’t speak highly enough about it. It’s one of the better experiences I’ve had.”

In 1966 the orchestra changed its name to Colorado Philharmonic and relocated to Evergreen. It was during this period that Carl Topilow took over as director and principal conductor. The maestro’s easy style, humor and audience engagement lend much to the enjoyment of NRO’s performances.

Another name change in 1986 to National Repertory Orchestra found the performers in Keystone where they played in a tent until moving to its present home in Breckenridge in 1993.

The current music director for the NRO, Carl Topilow, has been with the orchestra for 42 years. Topilow has been instrumental in leading the orchestra and establishing its place at the forefront of the summer music scene in Colorado. He also is a founding conductor for the Cleveland Pops Orchestra and the Firelands Symphony Orchestra. 

One of Topilow’s specialties in leading the NRO has been creating visual illustrations and guides to foster a more immersive experience for the audiences.

While the summer season is now behind us, 2021 is just around the corner. If you’re planning a trip to Breckenridge, be sure to look into the NRO events schedule.

There are many hotels nearby as well, and other local attractions to check out. No matter what time of year you visit, there’s tons of outdoor activities to do with the whole family. If you’re hitting Breckenridge during the NRO season, you can enjoy a beautiful Breckenridge summer, with whitewater rafting, hiking, fly-fishing and more.

If You Go

National Repertory Orchestra
P.O. Box 6336
Breckenridge, Colorado 80424

The Summer Gala black-tie celebration benefiting the National Repertory Orchestra will be June 26 at the Grand Hyatt, 1750 Welton St., Denver. The $200 ticket includes cocktails, dinner, silent and live auctions, entertainment by the NRO and dancing to the 88-piece orchestra. The highlight of the party is always when the highest bidders win the coveted prize of conducting the orchestra that evening. To purchase tickets, call the NRO office at 970-453-5825 or contact Julie Chandler at [email protected]