The Venice Symphony Orchestra

Venice Symphony Orchestra

Undaunted and inexperienced, one plucky young, music nerd starts a classical musical revival in the city by the sea.

By Taylor Van Arsdale

“There’s no symphony orchestra in Venice and Venice is the creative center of the universe in my mind,” says Wesley Flowers, a self-professed ‘music nerd in hipster clothing. He sips drinks with me at Montana Avenue’s trendy R&D Restaurant to discuss his latest project: the creation of the Venice Symphony Orchestra.

The VSO is a diverse group of musicians assembled and performing classical / rock concerts under the creative wunderkind of Flowers, who got the idea for the project when he went to see the free Santa Monica Symphony and thought “It was very cool.”

Many people go to see orchestras play, but it’s not often that a musician, especially one without classical training, decides to put one together. It’s one thing to form a band. Hell, everyone in Los Angeles is forming a band or has formed a band or at some point, will form a band. But to assemble a symphony—not quite the mode de vie one expects from a 20-something, longhaired, bass player/keyboardist, but Flowers is a determined and passionate young man.

What pushed him to action was the Santa Monica Symphony Association’s decision to put a hold on their 2012/2013 schedule of concerts due to budgetary constraints—they have since been able to coordinate three additional shows including one in November—but during their down time Flowers stepped in to create his tour de force, the Venice Symphony Orchestra.

It’s an ambitious undertaking for the young Flowers, who admits that one challenge is that he’s not classically trained and doesn’t read music—a personal goal which he is currently working to overcome.

“I’m learning a lot. For example, in my mind, I thought you just needed a couple violins and some horns, but you need at least three violinists to have it sound like a true string section; the way they blend together.”

These minor musical issues aside, Flowers has pulled it off. The last show—also their first show—was extremely successful with the VSO playing to a packed house. Their set consisted of medleys from The Beach Boys and The Beatles, interspersed with John Williams’ material such as the “Theme from Jaws.” From there, a transition to a mash up with Beck and Mozart—“Two turn tables and a microphone bleeding into Rondo Alla Turca with,” as Flowers explains, “f dominant 7 ringing out.” It garnered nothing short of rave audience reviews.

According to Jason Teague, a local architect and one of the funders of the project, “Wesley Flowers is a mad scientist of music—surrounded with computers, keyboards, and other instruments, he somehow conducts a symphony while playing along with them.” True. To see Flowers elicit music from his orchestra is something interesting to behold. He eschews brandishing a wand and instead, throws his whole body into conducting, moving wildly about the stage.

So how then did Flowers, a classically untested musician get to this place? And what exactly is his background? It’s the traditional story: Flowers hails from Atlanta, from a family of musicians. Sister plays Obo. Aunt is a singer/teacher with a music degree from the University of Georgia. Father plays guitar, piano and bass. Flowers cut his teeth on piano transitioned to bass and came to Los Angeles to work on an album with pop music producer Butch Walker. He had toured with Walker for five years then fell in love with the ocean and well…here he is.

With Flowers’ extreme modesty, that might be the summation of the back story save for the fact that he doesn’t readily offer up one juicy little tidbit—he currently plays keyboards in a band called The Pierces; which is opening for…Coldplay.

Don’t let the slightly diffident “nerdesque” fool you. Underneath Flower’s self-effacing demeanor is a more than competent, touring rock and roll musician looking to share the experience of a symphony with others in his neighborhood.

“It is a constant undertaking, looking for Musicians,” explains Flowers. “I heard a quote. When Glenn Miller was having trouble holding onto musicians he asked Benny Goodman, ‘How have you kept it going this long?’ and Goodman said, ‘I have no idea. I just never stopped.’ And I think that’s true with any band or symphony or even a business or a baseball team or whatever you want to draw the metaphor to.” Flowers assembled his musicians through Craig’s list and Yo! Venice and several other blogs.

As he put the pieces together, it was the Electric Lodge that has been integral to the production of the concerts. “They are where we had our first concert on September 16. They’ve been incredibly helpful. Allowing us to hold auditions and rehearsals and a concert and have been very reasonable; more than could be expected. They are one of three things that had to have gone right for this to see the light of day [the others being the audience and the players] so I’m glad they have been so helpful.” 

The musicians (all 12) have pedigrees and the group is primary female; string virtuoso Emily Welsch is the concertmistress and principal violinist and Sarah Chamberlain and Fee Doyle are flutists. The VSO is volunteer-based and is currently looking for grants to help subsidize their program. In the meantime the group is hoping to play private functions and is planning a Christmas show December 7 at the Electric Lodge.

“I want this to be world-class. There are 68 orchestras in Los Angeles and I don’t want to be the same old ‘tribute to the masters’ I would like to be a ‘tribute to the present as well as the past.’”

Of the last show, George Francisco, a patron of the arts, says, “Whether you’re an accomplished fan of classical composition or someone who doesn’t know Bach from Wagner, the way the Venice Symphony Orchestra moves smoothly from classical to contemporary is a wonderful musical experience for all.” Indeed.

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