It was three decades ago, but Barb Smith remembers well the day Julie Mahoney became director of the East Valley Pops Orchestra.
“We had been floundering and Julie was a miracle worker,” the Tempe resident almost gushes. “Good musicians were coming to one rehearsal and never returning. But then things changed almost overnight. Julie’s youthful enthusiasm was exactly what we needed. She saved the day.”
Today Mahoney, who’s about to begin her 30th year as EVPO’s conductor, may not be able to claim youth as a current attribute — she just turned 70 — but her enthusiasm for making the 70-member orchestra the best it can be is greater than ever.
“We want to be the Boston Pops of the East Valley,” she says.
Area residents will be able to hear for themselves how close the East Valley Pops Orchestra comes to reaching that goal as it launches its new season this month with Mahoney on the podium.
About a third of EVPO’s musicians are snowbirds — they come from 11 states and three Canadian provinces — so its “season” is relatively short but ambitious.
“Between now and the end of the year we’ll play five concerts featuring a lot of holiday music,” Mahoney says. “And then we’ll have another half-dozen concerts in February and March. A lot of show tunes, movie themes, semi-classical pieces, some patriotic stuff — music our audiences know and really seem to enjoy.”
In addition there will be a concert where instrumental music students from area public schools gather to experience the sound of a full-sized orchestra.
That’s when EVPO fulfills another part of its mission: providing some financial support for music education in those very schools.
“It’s become an important part of what we do,” Mahoney says. “Thanks to the generosity of our audience members, our orchestra members and other music lovers, we’ve been able to contribute thousands of dollars each year to Mesa-area public schools where instrumental music programs need a boost.”
Mahoney is familiar with the need. She’s a retired public school music educator, having spent 17 years as a strings instructor in Mesa schools after a dozen years in her native Omaha.
“Music is a universal language and I’ve seen the magic it produces in students in terms of learning, in self-confidence, in social skills, in overall development,” she says. “It enhances academic success and life-long enjoyment, so it’s important. Not to mention fun.”
The East Valley Pops Orchestra was known as “the Citrus Gardens Concert Orchestra” when Mahoney was handed the baton.
“It was about 50 members at that time,” she recalls. “I was 41 years old and the youngster in the group.”
Barb Smith marvels at the growth and progress the ensemble has experienced under Mahoney’s leadership.
“After just a few sessions, you could see and hear the difference,” says Smith, a flutist who stepped down from the orchestra just last year. “At first we suffered from not having instruments where we needed them, or enough of them. But she made it happen. Her music choices were absolutely incomparable. I admired her so much.”
The group’s name was changed to the Silveridge Pops Orchestra in 1998, and then became the East Valley Pops Orchestra in 2015, better describing its geographic reach as a community orchestra.
Phoenix resident Chris Perry, who has served as associate conductor for 12 years, says Mahoney puts 100% of her energy into the orchestra.
“On or off the podium, EVPO is a priority in Julie’s life and she’s always thinking about what we can do better,” he says. “During rehearsals she’s always pushing the orchestra to their musical and technical limits to get the best out of the musicians. This dedication, this drive towards an ideal, combined with her personable nature, is a large part of what makes the orchestra work so well.”
Trombonist Donna Read of Tempe joined the group 25 years ago. “Every season Julie takes us to a new level of accomplishment,” she says, “and she does it with humor and joy.”
EVPO’s season-opening concert will be Nov. 28 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mesa. Go to eastvalleypops.org.