The judges signaled to Rachel Gawell to stop midway through her Haydn cello piece. Same with the Bach prelude - she'd only played the beginning when, to her surprise, Ilya Finkelshteyn, principal cellist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, gave her two thumbs up.
"I wondered, `Did he do that to everybody?'" the 16-year-old said later.
Many of the 22 students auditioning before BSO judges recently did get pencil taps and other kinds of bravos, but only four, including Gawell, a junior at the Baltimore School for the Arts, got the nod to share the stage with international cello star Yo-Yo Ma. Today, the BSO is scheduled to announce to the public the names of those chosen to play with Ma at the Feb. 5 opening of the Music Center at Strathmore, the BSO's new home in Bethesda.
The honor includes rehearsal time with the master himself in preparation for a piece that has eight cello parts. Three BSO cellists and Ma will perform with the students.
Gawell, of Arnold, is one of two artists selected from the Baltimore School for the Arts, which was abuzz in recent days with students and teachers vying for tickets to the performance. The second is fellow junior Colin Stokes, 17. Stokes has been playing cello for 11 years and plans to make a career of music. He played several movements from the grand opening concert piece, Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas brasileiras No. 5, at the Heifetz International Music Institute several years ago. "It's a beautiful piece," he said.
The other student cellists are Tianheng "Tim" Wang, 13, of Boyds, an eighth-grader at Kingsview Middle School, and Jeffrey Chu, 15, of Gaithersburg, a 10th-grader at Quince Orchard High School.
Wang has played cello for eight years and performs regularly with the Bethesda-based Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra. Chu also plays with the MCYO and is the recipient of numerous first-place cello awards from the Maryland State Music Teachers Association.
BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney, principal second violinist Qing Li and assistant conductor Andrew Constantine joined Finkelshteyn to judge auditions Dec. 3 and 4 in Baltimore and Bethesda.
Besides a high level of technical skill, Carney said the judges sought "people with wonderful sound, a lot of fantasy in their playing, and imagination." They also wanted students who would benefit from the experience, "someone who will go beyond what's presented to him," he said. Yo-Yo Ma is very demanding, and takes a lot of risks, Carney said, and "it is a very musically intense and grand piece."
Gawell, who has performed in numerous chamber music ensembles in the past decade, has been listening nonstop to a new recording of the music she will play with Ma since she learned of the honor. Even when her pianist told Gawell after the audition that she'd played her best ever, she didn't expect to win. "It's awesome," she said.