Reaching a high note

Concert: An honors program gives students a chance to experience the excitement (and terror) of performing as pros.

November 06, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Stroll by the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight and you might get the impression that Darth Vader and his Death Star compadres have landed in Baltimore.

Strains of John Williams' "Star Wars" score will burst forth as young musicians -- part of Baltimore County's annual High School Honor Band, Chorus and Orchestra -- play violins, violas, cellos and double basses.

Later, students playing trumpets, tubas and trombones will interpret C.E. Duble's "Bravura," creating visions of a circus high-wire with glamorous, lithe performers.

The performance culminates weeks of practice at school and at home, including three evening rehearsals at Perry Hall High School, for about 320 young musicians who will take the Meyerhoff stage tonight.

Baltimore County's honors program gives its young musicians an unusual chance to perform in a high-profile concert hall, under the direction of professional conductors.

Despite the hard work they've put into the night of music -- an event school system officials describe as a defining moment that prods some teen-agers to pursue professional music careers -- sweaty palms, wobbly knees and parched throats persist.

"I'm dreading it," said James Grant, 17, a senior at Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, who successfully auditioned for a spot with the county's Honor Chorus. "We are going to be performing for our parents and our peers. I hope we can really convey something fantastic."

Preparation for the big performance -- which is open only to family and friends, who have received free tickets -- started last month with auditions by more than 1,000 young musicians.

To pick the winners, about 70 music teachers volunteered their ears, said Clinton Marshall, the school system's music coordinator.

Another 43 music teachers coached teen-agers through difficult musical passages in the voice, string and band arrangements of pieces that include "Danny Boy," the "Danse Boheme" from "Carmen" and Ticheli's "Cajun Folk Songs."

Music professionals from Maryland, Pennsylvania and British Columbia, Canada, worked with the students during recent rehearsals to prepare them for the Meyerhoff.

For conductors, the young artists offer a blast of energy and enthusiasm that makes gaffes and goofs -- including noisy chatter and preoccupied percussionists -- worth it.

"I'm always energized by them," said guest orchestral conductor Timothy Running, a professor of music at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. "I find them to be so vital. The whole experience is very exciting."

Gerald King, whom school officials flew in from Victoria, British Columbia, to conduct the Honor Band, uses rehearsals with students to impart musical wisdom.

"Visualize the sound going through the instrument," King instructed. "To me, the sound is No. 1. The instrument is just the technology we use to serve the sound."

Exposure to music professionals such as Running, King and Margaret Boudreaux, director of choral activities at Western Maryland College in Westminster, is part of the positive buzz that surrounds Baltimore County's honors program, one of the few of its kind in the state.

"For us, it's all about treating young musicians just like professionals for one glorious night," Marshall said. "At the Meyerhoff, they get full access to the green room, and there are stagehands if they need a music stand."

For Honor Orchestra violinist Scott Waldron Jr., 14, a freshman at Dulaney High School, today's performance will allow him an opportunity to see how his private teacher, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Herbert Greenberg, feels when he takes to the Meyerhoff stage.

"It's certainly good exposure for him," said Scott's mother, Joanne Waldron, 38, who sat through the group's rehearsal Wednesday night. "I wish the school system would do even more events like this."

Adding to the excitement surrounding this year's event, some student performers will walk on stage with shiny, new instruments -- part of a $3.2 million order of 3,274 instruments that will replace about 65 percent of the system's dinged and duct-taped inventory.

"It's pretty nice," said Eileen Fahrmeier, 16, a sophomore at Kenwood High School, eyeing a new double bass that she will play at the Meyerhoff.

A second-year veteran of the Honor Orchestra, Fahrmeier is anxious to return to the BSO's home hall.

Said Fahrmeier of the experience: "On stage, you get an incredible sense of `Oh, my God, I'm part of this.' "

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