A passionate musician leads Richey Community Orchestra

Denise Isaacson, playing sax during practice with the 42nd Street Band, is a lifelong musician and an accomplished player of many instruments. As president and executive director of the Richey Community Orchestra, she works on all manner of details.
Denise Isaacson, playing sax during practice with the 42nd Street Band, is a lifelong musician and an accomplished player of many instruments. As president and executive director of the Richey Community Orchestra, she works on all manner of details.
Published Sept. 18, 2014

Denise Isaacson is living a dream, one set in motion when she climbed onto a piano bench for her first lesson at age 4. She was enraptured by the sounds the black and white keys made and hungry to learn. But life for the daughter of a Methodist minister was nomadic. Instruction depended on whether the church organist in whatever place they were living was willing to teach.

As a youngster she sang at her mother's church parties and in the choir. She could barely see over the railing when she performed her first solo — a hymn called Precious Jewels for her younger brother's baptism — battling stage fright the whole way through.

Now she's as cool as a cucumber playing a variety of instruments before packed houses.

Her pride and joy is the 50-piece Richey Community Orchestra. For 43 years she has played in the nonprofit orchestra and is now the principal clarinet player and since 1981 has served as president and executive director.

"She eats, lives and breathes the orchestra and because of that I think that's why the orchestra is so successful," said Judith Koutsos, co-owner of Spartan Manor in New Port Richey, where the orchestra performs annual dinner shows.

It's a group effort, Isaacson insists.

"There's a lot of people with talent out there, but they don't get the break," she said. "That's why the orchestra means so much to me."

Locally she has performed with the Richey Community Orchestra, Hernando Symphony Orchestra, the 42nd Street Band, the Charly Raymond Band and at a slew of community theatrical and music productions.

Isaacson has also built an impressive resume on a broader scale, playing in the orchestra pit for Broadway tours at Ruth Eckerd Hall and in venues throughout Florida, mastering scores for Sweet Charity, Guys & Dolls, Some Like It Hot, 42nd Street and The King & I.

Add to that gigs backing big names like Johnny Mathis, Olivia Newton-John, Bernadette Peters, Robert Goulet, Aretha Franklin, Marie Osmond, the Temptations and the Four Tops.

"Johnny is a sweetheart to play for," she said. "And the Temptations and the Four Tops are hysterically fun. There's a lot of high energy, people screaming, everyone up on their feet."

Ask about her obvious talent, and she'll have none of that.

"I sit next to people who have master's and doctorate degrees and then there's me. I'm nothing compared to that," she said. "My talent is my determination."

That's her own humble opinion, but others attest to her multiple talents.

"She's not only a great musician but she's also a great administrator," said Robert Boyd, director of the 42nd Street Band and co-conductor of the Richey Community Orchestra. "She has a drive to succeed and to present something that's worthwhile to the community."

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Isaacson enjoyed worthy influences such as the late Vaughn Bean, a band director and music teacher from Boston who conducted the Richey Community Orchestra from 1987 to 2000.

"He took me under his wing," she said. "I guess he saw the desire in my eyes."

Bean encouraged her to learn how to play the saxophone. Later she took on the flute, the bassoon and the piccolo, a painstaking process reminiscent of the many hours she spent plucking away at the piano as a teenager in a church sanctuary.

Back then, she played hymns and the like, but a new sound fueled her when she happened upon some old sheet music stashed in the piano bench in the family's Frostproof home.

It was from the 1940s — songs like A Boy in Khaki, A Girl in Lace," she said. "I forced my fingers, one hand at a time. I drove my mother absolutely insane. She'd tell me to find something else to do, but I would keep at it."

There was no piano in the rectory when the family moved to Arcadia in the late 1960s.

"I was heartbroken. I cried for three months," Isaacson said.

To brighten her spirits, her parents bought her a light oak Whitney Spinet for $540. That piano accompanied her in the early 1970s, when she was in her late teens and followed her parents to the minister's next assignment in New Port Richey.

Isaacson claims that she never quite mastered the keyboard, but she did find a steadfast niche playing in a small community band that rehearsed in the music room at the old Gulf High School on Louisiana Avenue.

The rest, you might say is history — save for one afternote.

Her beloved spinet was ruined during the No Name Storm of 1993 when 4 feet of water poured into the Isaacsons' home, making a mess of the family's belongings.

Her husband, John, who plays oboe in the orchestra, crafted the legs of that old spinet into a pair of music pegs to hold her clarinet and alto sax during performances.

A loving gesture, no doubt, and a tribute to the player's perseverance.

Michele Miller can be reached at or at (727) 869-6251. Follow @mimichele525.