Students make music with the pros

By Michael J. Dunne
For the Journal Inquirer
February 8, 2005

Manchester High School students
LEFT: Student cellists Zachary Wood and Elinor Colanti get advice from Manchester High School music teacher (and orchestra violinist) Carol Maas. RIGHT: Students Crystal Shea and Julie Maas warm up before rehearsal with the Manchester Symphony Orchestra.

MANCHESTER — The beginning of the Monday-night rehearsal of the Manchester Symphony Orchestra sounds typically chaotic. Conductor Lew Buckley hasn’t arrived yet, and instrumentalists are finding their chairs, chatting, setting up their scores, and tuning their instruments.

Toward the rear a brass player is practicing runs on his trumpet while the tympanist is leaning over his drums, tapping with his drumsticks as he tunes each one. A French horn blats out an opening note. A group of teenagers, clutching their instrument cases (violins and violas, mostly, although one girl is unpacking a cello almost as big as she is), comes wandering in. Concertmaster Jean Conner shows them to chairs and helps them get settled.

Wait. A group of teenagers? In a symphony orchestra?

Indeed. Because the upcoming concert of this orchestra, titled “Side-by-Side,” is going to be an unusual one. A number of Manchester High School instrumental music students have been invited to perform as members of the orchestra, each student sitting side by side with his or her adult counterpart. Along with practicing among themselves, the students have now begun to sit in with the orchestra for rehearsals in ensemble. At the Saturday, Feb. 12, concert the students will join in performing three of the concert’s five selections: Aaron Copland’s “Outdoor Overture,” Reinhold Gliere’s “Russian Sailor’s Dance,” and “Finlandia,” by Jan Sibelius.

Now, at this Monday evening rehearsal, conductor Buckley has arrived, the orchestra has tuned up and, finally, the room quiets down. Buckley steps on to the podium and, first, addresses the students. He welcomes them (to applause from the adult performers), and assures them that his main concern is that they feel comfortable and not pressured, for only then can they do their best work.

Picking up his baton, he calls for the Copland. The “Outdoor Overture” by this modern American composer has some sections that are rhythmically tricky, and when Buckley leads the full orchestra through it the first time, it’s clear that something’s not working. He stops the group and smiles. “Okay,” he says, “we’re all playing the Copland, right?” They try it again. Not much better. He then tells the orchestra to put down their instruments,
watch their scores and speak the rhythm as he conducts it. “Dah, dah-dah, da, dah-dah-dah,” The performers chant their way through the passage.

“Okay, good, now, everyone except cellos, basses, trombones, bassoons, and tuba. Let’s play it together.” This time it’s much improved, without the bass instruments laying down the passage’s intricate, offbeat rhythms.

Now, the whole ensemble tries it. Much better, as each section gets used to playing its own part while at the same time hearing different rhythms and melodies from the other sections. “Great!” says Buckley. “Now let’s take it a tempo” (at the speed the passage is written at). And he drives the performance through what has become a quick-stepping, peppy rhythm. “Yeah,” he finally says, “that’s good!”

The arrangement whereby the students are joining with the Manchester Symphony is a result of the orchestra’s status as “artists-in-residence” at Manchester High School, through which the community orchestra makes its resources available to enhance the work of the school’s performing arts department. Guest artists who appear with the orchestra have conducted master clinics and classes for the music students. Recently, Lew Buckley, the orchestra’s artistic director and conductor, has been working with the school’s wind ensemble, and was guest conductor for that group’s concert on Wednesday, Jan. 26.

In a recent conversation, Buckley was asked if he had reservations about including the students in a symphonic concert. “None at all,” he says emphatically. “I’m sure that the students will be able to hold their own in playing the proper notes, even in the moderate-to-difficult compositions we’re going to be performing.”

What he wasn’t expecting, he goes on to say, was that the students would also be able to produce the kind of sonority, the quality of sound, that would enhance the performance of the orchestra as a whole. In fact, he reported, that’s what they’ve been doing in rehearsal, and he’s sure they’ll do it in performance.

The students themselves are excited at this opportunity to play as part of a “real-life” symphony orchestra. They’d been rehearsing separately for a while before joining the orchestra, but, as one of them says, “It’s a big step from school to symphony.” When asked if they felt that their joining the symphony is a new level in the demands that the difficult classical music makes on them, they respond, with much teenage rolling of eyes, “Oh, yeah! It’s a big step!” They’re then asked if they feel intimidated. That question stops them for a moment as they think it over, and as one student responds, “No, not intimidated. I’m excited, and I’m working hard, and I think it’ll be okay,” the others
nod in agreement. Carol Maas, the director of the school’s chamber orchestra (and a violinist with the Manchester Symphony Orchestra), agrees. “They’re good,” she says. “They’ll be fine.”

The students leave rehearsal early, while the rest of the orchestra goes on to rehearse the two compositions the students aren’t taking part in. As they pack their instruments, ranging from small violins to the cello that’s almost taller than the girl carrying it, their demeanor is calm but earnest as they compare notes on where next their busy lives will take them this evening. They walk out the door into the night, carrying their instruments.

They look like the musicians they are.

The Manchester Symphony Orchestra, with student performers from Manchester High School, will perform on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 7:30 p.m., at the Manchester High School Auditorium, 134 Middle Turnpike East. The program includes Aaron Copland’s “Outdoor Overture,” Dvorak’s “Serenade,” Reinhold Gliere’s “Russian Sailors Dance,” “Finlandia,” by Sibelius, and “The Pines of Rome,” by Respighi. Tickets at the door are $13 for adults and $10 for seniors and students. Children under 18 free are admitted for free.