Wednesday, October 27, 1999

Teens will live every musician's dream

For Walnut Hills High School orchestra, invitation to play at Carnegie Hall is simply 'awesome'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rian Norris plays the cello during orchestra class.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        The 53 musicians move their bows with passion and precision. Conductor Ken Welsh lifts his left hand and yells, “More, more!”

        The bows move faster, gliding up and down the strings, until the music crescendoes in a thundering finish.

        Perfection is critical because the teen-agers who make up the Walnut Hills High School senior orchestra will perform the piece, “Si Bheag Si Mhor/Gravel Walk,” at New York City's Carnegie Hall in April.

        “It's awesome,” says violinist Breana Bauman, 17, of Madisonville. “Every serious musician aspires to play (at Carnegie) because it's the music center of the world.”

        Walnut Hills is one of nine high school orchestras from around the country — and the only one from Ohio — performing at the first annual National Invitational Orchestra Festival on April 22.

        “For a musician, you can't get any higher than Carnegie,” says Mr. Welsh of Indian Hill. “Everyone important in music history has played there.”

Conductor Ken Welsh leads class.
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        The top musical performers and world leaders who have graced the coveted Carnegie stage include: The Beatles, Winston Churchill, The Doors, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Groucho Marx, Booker T. Washington and Woodrow Wilson.

        “It's intimidating because Carnegie is where so many famous people made their debut,” says harpist Madigan Fichter, 17, of Mount Lookout. She began playing at 5 after being smitten with a harpist's performance in a restaurant.

        In 1891, famed Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducted his “Marche Solennelle” on the hall's opening night.

        Sean Owens, 15, a senior from Green Township, first picked up a violin in the first grade at the Sands Montessori. “I always wanted to play.”

        Sean, who practices three to four hours at a time several times a week, calls the April concert “an amazing opportunity. Even if none of us ever plays in anything again, we can always say we played at Carnegie Hall.”

        The invitation impresses even the professionals.

  Conductor Ken Welsh spoke about the trip and the excitement it has brought:
  Q: In a school known more for academics than music, how did you put together an orchestra good enough to play Carnegie Hall?
  A: We keep it a secret (laughter). We've played all over the world — even at King Phillip II's palace in Spain two years ago. We get around. But we don't brag; we just have a good time. We do start our own beginners in seventh grade, but about half our kids came in from the Suzuki program. A lot of these kids have serious aspirations: We've got three going to Julliard.
  Q: When and how did you start teaching music?

A: I've been teaching for 28 years. Before I started teaching, I played with the symphony when Vietnam happened. I was a trumpet player, planning on being in the military bands, when the supervisor of music for Cincinnati Public Schools asked me if I wanted to be a music teacher. So I became a teacher instead.
  Q: How does it feel to be headed for Carnegie Hall?

A: That's the top of the ladder for professionals, let alone student musicians. So students can see where the culmination of a music career would be. Any musician who has made it has played in Carnegie Hall.

        “You have to be able to hold your own to play at Carnegie,” says John Morris Russell, associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. “It's a reflection of the high quality of musical education (at Walnut Hills).”

        Mr. Russell, who has performed at Carnegie numerous times, says the students will find the hall's acoustics are among the best in the world. “The remarkable acoustics make (musicians) sound the best they ever will.”

        For the students, performing at Carnegie Hall is both exciting and frightening.

        “It's really exciting as a musician to play in the best (music) hall,” says Sarah Zun, 17, of Clifton, who practices the violin three hours a day. “It's the opportunity of a lifetime.”

        Violinist Andrew Coil, 14, of Amberley Village, admits: “I know I'll be nervous when I get there. But I know when I stand on the stage I'll just go, "Wow!'”

        Rian Norris, 17, of Pleasant Ridge says Carnegie Hall is “definitely a payoff” for eight years of studying violin and two as a cellist.

        The nine orchestras were chosen from more than 50 high schools around the country to perform at a festival that is sponsored by the Field Studies Center of New York.

        In June Mr. Welsh sent in a tape of the orchestra, made up of seventh- to 12th-graders, to the center. It was judged by: John Whitney, dean of music at the University of Central Florida; Frank Battisti, head of the music department at the New England Conservatory of Music; and Donald Hunsburger, conductor of the Eastman School of Music wind ensemble.

        Three weeks later, the invitation came.

        The Walnut Hills orchestra will join schools from California, Illinois, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Michigan for the festival.

        The competition was being chosen to participate. At the festival, each orchestra will play for 30 minutes and be critiqued by those same three judges.

        Back in the basement music room at Walnut Hills, Mr. Welsh thrusts his baton upward. His students keep an eye on the music sheets in front of them, periodically glancing at him for their cues.

        “This is one of the best orchestras I've had,” said Mr. Welsh, who has taught the school's orchestra for 11 years. “They can play a wide range of music: from jazz to Celtic to classical.”

        Most of the orchestra members are seasoned veterans of concert performances, having traveled as far as Spain, France and Venezuela. But still, the chance to perform at Carnegie Hall is a musician's dream.

        Students are raising money for the trip and the costs of staying in New York from April 20-24 by selling candy bars, cheese and sausage, coupon books, and orchestra posters.

        Donations can be sent to: Walnut Hills High School Orchestra, 3250 Victory Parkway, Cincinnati 45207.

        Years of work, more than a decade for some of the teens, will pay off with the concert.

        Madigan's immense and beautifully wooden-carved harp rests against her petite shoulder. She strokes the strings in a swan-like motion and talks about being at her best for Carnegie: She wouldn't be satisfied with anything less.

        “Playing at the hall is both intimidating and exciting,” she said. “It's going to be the biggest concert of my life.”

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