By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
9:31 PM EST, February 7, 2013
The stage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stands under a four-story-high ceiling, commanding an auditorium that seats more than 2,400 — bigger than any hall most students in the Howard County Gifted and Talented Orchestra have ever played. Soon after they begin their rehearsal, the young musicians can hear, and feel, the difference.
"You can feel how large the hall is when you play," said J.D. Fishman, 16, a trombonist and junior at Marriotts Ridge High School. "Everyone can feel that echo."
"Everything seems really far away," added Joshua Kim, 17, the principal cellist and a senior at Centennial High School. "In an orchestra, you're relying a lot on what other people are playing, so if you can't hear that you have a harder time doing that."
A few adjustments will be necessary for orchestra members, who were having their first and only rehearsal at the Meyerhoff for a concert they will give there Feb. 20, sitting next to members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The afternoon unfolded in two separate rehearsals, one with students only, one with BSO members, each including pointers along the way from conductor Shizuo Kuwahara.
"It's kind of intimidating," said Joshua Waldman, 16, a clarinetist and junior at Glenelg High. "Because of the size, and I've been coming to concerts here with the BSO. And now coming here" to play.
"I've never played on that big of a stage," said pianist Alisa Hwang, 15, a sophomore at Marriotts Ridge who will be playing solo — out front of the orchestra on a Steinway grand — in Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, 1st movement, with its passages of dazzlingly fast finger work.
"The number of seats overwhelms you, even if it's empty," she said of the Meyerhoff.
The auditorium can seat 2,465, more than three times the capacity of the Jim Rouse Theatre and Performing Arts Center at Wilde Lake High, the largest hall most of the students have played up to now.
On rehearsal day, the seats were empty but for those taken by half the student orchestra waiting their turn to rehearse, and faculty orchestra leaders keeping close eyes and ears on the proceedings.
This is Howard County's first turn at the BSO's Side-by-Side program, which has been going on for at least 20 years. Students in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties have taken their turns on the big stage, but not Howard.
"I've been trying to have a Side-by-Side happen in Howard for years," said orchestra director Rosemary Lather. While both the school and the orchestra were interested, Lather says "planning an event of this magnitude takes a lot of thought and consideration."
There's also money needed to pay the conductor, BSO musicians and the Meyerhoff crew — a sum the BSO declines to release. The amount was raised through a combination of tickets sold by students and the yearly $300 tuition they pay for this after-school activity.
Lather said the learning opportunity is invaluable.
She still remembers her own experience as a 16-year-old violinist at Catonsville High School playing at the Lyric Opera House as a "profound event. …It was so, such a dramatic musical experience."
Drawn from all 12 of Howard County's high schools, Gifted and Talented Orchestra members must pass a rigorous audition to make the cut, including sight reading, playing scales, a solo and an orchestral piece.
About 220 students auditioned, and 108 were selected.
They've rehearsed the Feb. 20 concert program at Howard High School eight times, including once with Kuwahara, and will have two more rehearsals there before the concert.
Given this program, they'll need all that. Kuwahara, music director of the Symphony Orchestra Augusta in Georgia, has done many student concerts and took part in choosing the concert selections. But he says he's never conducted a program as demanding as this.
"I was thinking, 'Are you serious?' " Kuwahara said. "We're going to do all this music?"
They are. One group of 54 students will sit in with the BSO to perform "Short Ride on a Fast Machine," by contemporary composer John Adams; selections from Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations;" and the Prokofiev piano concerto. The other group of 54 will perform the first and fourth movements of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1.
"This is a difficult program for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra," to say nothing of a student group, said Richard Field, the BSO's principal viola.
Hwang, the student piano soloist, showed up a bit earlier than the others, taking her Prokofiev warm-ups at a Steinway grand in a small recital room. During the speedier runs at the treble end, one might expect sparks to fly off the keys.
"There's a lot of technical challenges playing the chords loud and strong enough," said Hwang. "You have to have the stamina to keep it loud enough and strong enough through the piece," which runs about 12 minutes.
Hwang started playing piano when she was 4, and has racked up awards in an array of competitions, including the International Young Artist Piano Competition in Washington and the statewide Elizabeth R. Davis Memorial Piano Competition.
At one point Kuwahara stepped into the recital room, stood next to the piano and ran through a few sections with her, offering critique and encouragement.
"Keep the pulse, keep the pulse," he said, urging her to mind the feeling and dynamics of the piece.
"It's pianissimo here," he said, referring to a passage to be played softly, "so if you don't play this loud enough, this is not going to be soft enough."
Back onstage, the other musicians filed in off three charter buses. Soon Kuwahara had mounted the conductor's podium, and they were off on the Elgar "Enigma Variations."
"Let's try again, don't rush, don't rush," he said. "You know how it sounds — ba-ba-ba — try to connect it."
Later, students noted how Kuwahara focused his comments in terms of the "musicality" of the piece and the feeling of it.
In the Mahler first movement, "he told us to envision springtime" said Evangeline Chandran, 18, a violinist from River Hill High School. He wanted it to be "very lively."
In their side-by-side rehearsal — working next to their professional counterparts — the students learned more by watching.
"It shows us all the little details" of technique, said Mingran Yu, 17, a River Hill High senior and principal viola, playing alongside Richard Field. "It's not so much learning how to play the music, but just being with someone" who has years of experience.
Joshua Kim, the principal student cellist, noticed his BSO counterpart, Dariusz Skoraczewski, "keeps the sound consistent" through the varying dynamics of several passages. "I have a hard time keeping the sound."
Students are mostly playing the same parts as their BSO counterparts, but not always, as the score at points calls for a solo instrument.
At the beginning of the Mahler rehearsal, Andrew Cho, 17, a Centennial High junior and second clarinet, plays three pairs of two notes — and wins silent applause from BSO clarinetist Steven Barta, sitting to his right.
The students in general win applause from the musicians and their conductor.
If students have something to learn from the experience, said Kuwahara, they also have much to bring.
"There's something that youth can give," he said. "It's the hungriness. It's looking for the unknown. It's the fear but also hope. It's so nice to be in a position where you don't know your future, because you can make one."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun