After her orchestra students tore through a rousing version of Aaron Copland’s classic “Hoe-Down,” director Wendy Tenney saluted the hard-working players.
“That was awesome,” Tenney said. “We admire you. We do not envy you,” she added, to laughter.
The Lowell High School orchestra teacher reassured them they were almost ready to go, less than a week before their Feb. 11 concert alongside the Grand Rapids Symphony. The 36-member Lowell orchestra will play the Copland piece and three others with the symphony, as part of the symphony’s Side by Side concert series with area schools.
“Let’s consider ourselves a professional orchestra, because you just played that piece at tempo,” Tenney told the students.
Their sense of professionalism will be enhanced by playing with the Grammy-nominated Grand Rapids Symphony under the baton of conductor John Varineau. The symphony also will play three numbers on its own, in a 7:30 p.m. concert at the Lowell Performing Arts Center.
“I think they’re seeing themselves in a different light,” said Tenney, who’s built up the Lowell strings program over 11 years. “They’re not just high school students. They’re doing professional music. So they see a different world of possibilities.”
And how, said violinist Jasmine Peters, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It really pushes you to try harder, because you’re playing with such amazing musicians who you’ve looked up to and seen play,” Jasmine said. “Now youget to play next to them. It’s just awe-inspiring.”
However, she admitted, “Sitting next to professionals is definitely a bit nerve-wrecking.”
Orchestra Program Blossoms
The concert is a feather in the cap of Lowell Area Schools’ orchestra program, which has made great strides since its inception in 2003. Starting with 12 sixth-graders, it has grown to about 300 students in grades 6-12, including 106 in the sixth-grade program. The high school orchestra has won top ratings in state festivals, and several students play in the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony.
The orchestra’s quality is reflected in its acceptance to a Side by Side concert. The Symphony holds three to five concerts a year at no charge to the schools.
The concerts are a way for Symphony members to highlight exceptional orchestras, give back to the schools that nurtured them and support arts education as vital to students’ development, said a Symphony official.
“By partnering with these schools, we hope to raise community awareness of the amazing work that these students and their teachers are doing every day,” said Claire Van Brandeghen, the Symphony’s director of education.
Tenney said the concert fits perfectly with her expectations of students.
“We’re always trying to have a professional experience,” said Tenney, who will join her orchestra on cello for the concert and occasionally plays with the Grand Rapids Symphony. “This is kind of a culmination of what we try to do from day one. I expect the students to behave as if they were professionals, and I treat them with the respect they deserve as professionals.”
That expectation means a lot to cellist Brianna Massey.
“It’s great to bring professionals together with us so we can see what it takes to play music at the professional level, as well as just talk to them about the different paths they took to get to this place,” Brianna said. “It’s just a great experience and I’m so excited.”
She noted, however, that the songs “are a lot faster than we thought.”
Exciting, Intimidating, Awesome
Brianna wasn’t the only student to remark on the challenge of mastering faster tempos after having learned their parts at a slower pace.
Tenney worked them in rehearsal on the tempo of “Jupiter,” from Gustav Holst’s suite “The Planets.” “This is where we have to accelerate and then just dive off the cliff,” she told the players. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll barrel through it. But I want you to be prepared.”
Preparing for the symphony concert has definitely upped their game, students said. Violist Bradley Fisher said they’ve had less preparation time than usual.
“You have to cram in a lot of practicing time when you’re working with a professional symphony,” said Bradley, who plans to major in music performance at Western Michigan University and has his sights on a performing career. “It gives me some motivation to work harder on my instrument.”
Violinist Abbie Gerig will serve as the orchestra’s concertmaster along with Symphony Concertmaster James Crawford. She wasn’t taking the responsibility lightly.
“I’m intimidated,” admitted Abbie, a junior. “I’m also really excited. It’s an honor to be sitting concertmaster for this concert. It gives me an opportunity to be a leader and to help everyone around me.”
Others saw the growth potential of playing with pros.
“We’re performing with people who do this for a living. That adds a little pressure,” said violinist Alex Smith. Added double bassist Caleb Devereaux, “I’m sure I’ll get some maturity out of it. These people know what they’re doing.”
Violinist Hunter Krzysik allowed himself a little hometown pride.
“I think it’s kind of awesome, because it gives the small city of Lowell a bigger name,” Hunter said. “It shows everyone what we can do.”