The first time most Howard County students walk across Merriweather Post Pavilion’s stage is during high school graduation. But on Sunday, more than 110 students from the Howard County Youth Orchestra performed to a cheering crowd of several thousand at the historic Columbia venue.
“Taking the stage at Merriweather is definitely a surreal experience,” said Glenelg High School senior and percussionist Bakhari Nokuri, 17. “Being able to feel what live drums and live bass feels like, where you can actually feel it in your feet and you feel it in your chest. ... It’s a lot different than anything we’ve ever played for.”
Previously known as the High School Gifted and Talented Orchestra, the group performed alongside alternative rock band Guster to celebrate the orchestra’s rebranding and showcase the musical talent of students from all 12 public high schools in the county.
“Orchestra shows are just really elevated,” said Guster’s lead vocalist Ryan Miller. “It makes the sad songs sadder or the exciting songs more exciting.”
Guster has done shows with professional orchestras, from the Boston Pops to the Colorado Symphony, for years, but had never played alongside dozens of teenage musicians at a large venue until Sunday. Miller said he was blown away by the skill set of the students, including Nokuri, who played the bells for a rendition of Guster’s song “Long Night.”
“They were exceptional players,” Miller said after the show. “I don’t know if I could have even really told the difference between that and Colorado Symphony or Dallas Symphony in a lot of ways. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Colin O’Bryan, one of the youth orchestra’s three directors and the conductor of Sunday’s show, envisions a multitude of future opportunities for students at Merriweather. If a visiting artist needs horns or a string section to accompany them, O’Bryan says they can call on the orchestra.
“We have amazing musicians that can fit any need that an artist has,” O’Bryan said. “I want the Howard County Youth Orchestra to become the house band for Merriweather.”
Building a culture of music
Music education has long been a focus of the county’s public school system, with all 77 schools having an orchestra, band and chorus. Elementary and secondary students participate in a variety of performances and festivals throughout the county and state each year.
“We just try to really cultivate this vibrant experience and community for them to get feedback on their music making,” said school system music coordinator Terry Eberhardt. “The skills that they’re learning aren’t just applicable to music. They also should connect to other areas and other aspects of their lives.”
Eberhardt says orchestra, which opens to students starting in third grade, is critical for teaching the importance of teamwork and also celebrates the school system’s diversity.
“Ensemble playing is a place where all walks of life can come together and do something to try to create greatness,” he said. “It’s one of the few places where you put your differences aside and you all work toward the common good of the music making or the storytelling that you’re trying to share.”
The youth orchestra usually has more than 200 students audition for about 100 slots at the end of every school year. The group typically conducts three concerts per year, which in 2022 included side-by-side performances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the string trio Time for Three.
“Orchestra is really cool because you get to collaborate with all sorts of musicians,” said member Carolyn Wong, 18, a Reservoir High School senior who started playing viola in third grade. “With a symphony orchestra … you get different sorts of music as well.”
The new name is more inclusive than Gifted and Talented Orchestra, according to Eberhardt, and better encapsulates the program’s countywide scope and mission. During the past several years, that mission has increasingly aimed to move beyond purely classical performances.
“This year, with Guster, we just keep re-imagining what is possible,” Eberhardt said. “We really want to show students and [the] community that orchestra can reach all people, it doesn’t have to be just people that appreciate classical music. … It can be any genre that is accessible.”
‘A proof of concept’
Sunday’s concert was the culmination of a partnership agreement signed in 2018 between the Howard school system and the Merriweather Arts and Culture Center, the nonprofit that has owned Merriweather Post Pavilion since 2016, to increase opportunities and programs for student musicians.
“I’m excited to see Merriweather used in this way,” said Ian Kennedy, the center’s executive director. “Every concert provides an opportunity for somebody to get outside of themselves, get outside of their day-to-day existence and maybe connect with something they didn’t know existed already.”
Kennedy knows just how impactful performing at Merriweather can be, after having played guitar there during his 1995 Hammond High School graduation.
“Ian took me to Merriweather and he said, ‘Dream,’” Eberhardt added. “Dream anything that you think could get kids into Merriweather and interested and having opportunities to play on this stage.”
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Once the partnership was in place, O’Bryan began brainstorming partner acts he believed could complement the orchestra and fill Merriweather. Included on a list was Guster, a band O’Bryan has loved since he was a teenager, even busking their songs with his brother on the streets of Saratoga Springs, New York.
When O’Bryan saw that Guster would be performing at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Theater, he reached out and asked if they’d want any student accompanists. Miller, to O’Bryan’s surprise, said yes.
“Nothing could prepare me for what it was like, the energy from the crowd,” said Centennial High School senior Sara Fleming, 18, who played baritone saxophone at Guster’s D.C. show in November. “Being with a professional band was just crazy.”
Impressed by their initial performance with nine Howard students, Guster eventually agreed to the Merriweather show with the full orchestra. Miller said he would strongly encourage other bands to perform with the youth orchestra and hopes Merriweather continues to embrace the side-by-side concerts with students.
“I really hope that this was a proof of concept that they can keep moving forward with because it’s such a unique experience not just for the kids, but for the bands, too,” he said.
Wong says Sunday’s show was an experience unlike any other she has had as an orchestral musician. She plans to attend the University of Maryland School of Music in the fall and becoming a music teacher.
“If I can create and have similar experiences like this for my students, I think that would be really amazing,” Wong said. “Hopefully, I can do something even half as cool as this for my students eventually.”