ROCHESTER – Brock Besse launches new orchestras wherever he lands.
Soon after moving there, in 2013, he played keyboard in the pit for performances of “Les Misérables.” He knew the city had classical ensembles, but he wondered whether the musicians he was playing alongside would want to perform popular songs and show tunes.
“I e-mailed every single person and within a week, I had well over 55 people who were interested,” Besse said. “I thought, ‘OK, there’s a calling for this in this neck of the woods.’ ”
This season, his upstart orchestra is celebrating its fifth anniversary. At this Sunday’s concert, “Back to the 80’s,” Besse will conduct about 60 musicians from high school to retirement age, plus a choir, performing grand versions of tunes by Whitney Houston and “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.
They’re volunteers. Besse is, too. In addition to his full-time job as minister of music and worship at Bethel Lutheran Church, where his pops project performs, Besse works as an assistant manager at Hy-Vee. Wages the 40-year-old earns at the grocery store go to his orchestra.
“You just make time for the things you love,” he said. “Sleep is optional.”
Players trek from Northfield, Winona, Lewiston. Lilah Aas, 72, first met Besse in Albert Lea and now drives more than an hour each way to rehearse and perform in Rochester.
“He’s creative and tries to make rehearsal fun,” Aas said. “He also expects quality.”
“That combination of acknowledging his creativity and wanting things to be as good as possible is infectious,” Aas said.
“Once people have played in a group with him, they’re almost always willing to play again.”
Up before sunrise
On a recent Sunday, Besse arrived at Bethel Lutheran at 5:30 a.m. to set up chairs and sound. He ran a 7:45 a.m. rehearsal, led music during the three services and, afterward, conducted auditions for the pops chorale. Then, as he was wrapping up another church rehearsal, the pops musicians began filing in, carrying instruments in cases and backpacks, just before 3 p.m.
A flutist warmed up in the bathroom. A trumpet player rehearsed downstairs. A horn player sat on a folding chair in the hallway, buzzing into his mouthpiece.
Once they had grabbed the new charts and were seated, Besse wiped his brow before launching into a fast-paced, energetic rehearsal. “OK, we’re going to start with ‘Time After Time,’ by Cyndi Lauper,” he said, standing in the room’s center, behind his keyboard.
He waved a bright pink baton. He counted, he played, he sang — sometimes all at once.
Besse was 5 years old when he first climbed onto the bench of his grandmother’s Wurlitzer Funmaker organ and began plunking out, by ear, songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
OK, his parents said, it’s time for organ lessons. Growing up in Norfolk, Neb., he picked up other instruments along the way — flute, harp, bassoon, oboe, English horn and harpsichord — but never had formal piano training. “I have my own technique and style of playing,” he said.
When his junior high teacher retired from her gig as church organist, Besse stepped in.
It was a church job that brought him to Albert Lea in 2006. As part of the interview process he directed a choir rehearsal, said Aas, who was on the selection committee. The singers loved the songs he picked and the way he led.
“Can he start this Sunday?” they asked.
‘A big book opened’
Aas is the Rochester Pops Orchestra’s keyboardist and Besse’s best friend.
Her husband passed away in 2001. Had he still been living, she might not have connected with Besse in the same way.
“Yes, this chapter of my life closed,” Aas said, “but wow, what a big book opened.”
Albert Lea, with a population of about 17,700, is “a teeny-tiny little town,” Besse said, so “we found ourselves inventing things to do.” He and Aas bought kayaks together, scooters. (Besse got a JetSki, too, but “she wasn’t interested in owning one of those,” he said, laughing.)
Then and now, they regularly drive to Minneapolis to see plays at the Guthrie Theater. Besse loves musicals but had been unsure about show tune-free productions. Seeing plays with Aas changed his mind.
“Even though there’s a 30-plus-year age difference between us, we’re just really close,” Aas said. “He’s an incredible human being, and we both are so grateful that somehow this friendship formed.”
She plays a key role with Besse’s work in Rochester, acting as emcee for concerts and playing in the special performances he dreams up for church services. She reads his arrangements and responds to what he’s composing.
“It’s a privilege to share in his gifts,” Aas said.
Last year, the pops orchestra staged a Disney concert, and dozens of kids came dressed up as mermaids and “Frozen” characters. “When you can get a 7-year-old to come to an orchestra concert, that’s pretty good, I think,” she said, chuckling. “He’s probably already planning for two seasons ahead.
“The mind is always working on that man.”
Recruiting at Hy-Vee
Besse relishes gathering people from different areas and different political backgrounds “for the sole purpose of a task — to sing, to play,” he said. “Politics is so absolutely in everybody’s face, dividing families, dividing people. Music can bring people together.”
He uses his Hy-Vee gig to pay for the rights to perform popular songs, which can cost hundreds of dollars. He also uses it to recruit audience members and musicians, chatting with customers about upcoming shows.
“Next thing you know, their eyes light up,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh! I play the flute.’ ”
The musicians see how much he’s juggling, from Hy-Vee to church to this volunteer group. The phone number for the pops orchestra “box office” is Besse’s cellphone.
“Brock’s amazing,” said Marilyn Yennie, 27, who plays clarinet. “The amount of work that he puts into arranging the pieces, getting licensure, directing the group. He makes sure we have everything we need to be successful.”
At the Sunday rehearsal, Besse corrected and complimented the more than 50 musicians gathered in the hall, finessing sections of songs. During the Whitney Houston tribute, he stopped the group. “Oh, no, it’s supposed to be pretty,” he said. “What happened?” A few brass players laughed.
As they moved from one song to the next, Besse dropped the charts onto a growing pile beside his keyboard. After a dozen other pieces — including “Hits of Phil Collins,” arranged for orchestra by Brock A. Besse — he wrapped things up. A few musicians lingered, asking him about particular passages. But even after they left, Besse stayed.
He packed up the boxes of folders of music, bringing them into the office. He unplugged his keyboard, setting it onto a cart, winding up cords. He pushed that into the office, too. Then he returned for the music stands, loading them onto their own cart.
For the first time that day, the room was quiet.