Thomas Wilson remembers the bleak scene when the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs hired him as music director in 1996.
Its annual budget was around $3,000 to $6,000, and at the first concert he conducted, the orchestra outnumbered the audience. There were no season subscribers, and the orchestra operated from concert to concert.
"They had about 60 bucks in the bank," Wilson says, "and were considering folding and merging with the Pikes Peak Philharmonic." They didn't, though, and Wilson helped begin the rehabilitation process. The picture is much rosier these days, with a 35-member roster of auditioned musicians, a six-figure budget and more than 300 subscribers, he says. The concert "30 Years of Music - A Celebration!," is a tribute to that growth. It's on Saturday at Cornerstone Arts Center.
"We're looking back on 30 years," Wilson says. "We wanted a program that was a celebration, and to bring in many of our close friends."
Susan Grace is one of those friends. The local pianist has played with the orchestra as a soloist about every other year.
"I've seen this remarkable improvement every year I play," Grace says. "Thomas has done a remarkable job. They have come a long way, have a wonderful board who cares about them and an audience that truly appreciates a chamber orchestra."
Saturday's gala program will open with Beethoven's "Leonore Overture," which Wilson finds fitting for the orchestra's journey. In the piece, a woman must rescue her husband from a dungeon. "It feels like that downward and then upward journey the orchestra has been on," Wilson says.
The evening then brings together orchestra collaborators from past seasons, including Grace, who will play "Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue." Vocalists Jacqueline K. Williams and Francine Sweet will also perform. They participated in the orchestra's popular pairing with Gospel Music Workshop of America in 2011. Local jazz vocalist Amy Sue Hardy will sing, and composer Sean Hennessy's premiere of "Concerto for Trumpet" will be performed by Glen Whitehead, the orchestra's principal trumpet player.
"The gala represents our birthday party," Wilson says. "There aren't enough orchestras out there that have reason to celebrate. We're proud of that and committed to growing and serving our community better. This is a milestone for us."
Chamber Orchestra of the Springs Presents: "30 Years of Music - A Celebration!"
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Celeste Theatre at Cornerstone Arts Center, Colorado College, 825 N. Cascade Ave.
Tickets: $75, includes wine, hors d'oeuvres and dinner, $25 concert only; 633-3649, chamber orchestraofthesprings.org