WASHINGTON - -"It's, like, overwhelming," David Kalwa said, looking around the gilded East Room. "I never thought I'd end up at the White House."
Kalwa, a senior at the Baltimore School for the Arts , was one of 120 middle- and high-schoolers invited to "A Celebration of Classical Music" on Wednesday, the latest event in first lady Michelle Obama's arts initiative. She started the White House Music Series as a way to bring attention to the value of arts education.
The inaugural project in June focused on jazz and featured Wynton, Bradford and Ellis Marsalis and Paquito D'Rivera. Country music was the focus in July, with Charley Pride and Brad Paisley among the guest stars. And last month, a Hispanic music festival was held on the South Lawn, with performances by Marc Anthony and Gloria Estefan, among others.
Wednesday's activities began in late morning with workshops and master classes held in the Map Room, Blue Room and other spots in the White House. The visiting students were coached by four classical artists - violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, guitarist Sharon Isbin, and pianist Awadagin Pratt. (Those artists performed Wednesday night in a White House concert attended by President Barack Obama.)
After the workshop sessions were over, the students assembled in the East Room, where Mrs. Obama welcomed them as "the classical superstars of tomorrow." She described the White House as "a place where we like to start new traditions," referring to the music series. "Nothing mixes old and new quite like classical music," she added. Praising their commitment and energy, she urged the young people to "never lose that passion" for music.
With that, the first lady said, "Let's get the show going," and took her place in the front row to hear performances by the guest artists and a few of the students.
A particularly charming moment came when Weilerstein played Saint-Saens' "The Swan" accompanied on the marimba with remarkable sensitivity by Jason Yoder, a long-haired junior at the Creative and Performing Arts School in Pittsburgh. Mrs. Obama had heard Yoder play before - "He blew me away," she said - and invited him to Wednesday's event.
Weilerstein also shared the stage for a duet with spirited 8-year-old Sujari Britt, a student at the Manhattan School of Music who bore an uncanny resemblance to Sasha Obama, one of the first daughters.
Pratt, a Peabody Conservatory alumnus who is on the faculty of the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, delivered a thunderous etude by Scriabin on the gold-accented grand piano with its carved eagles for legs.
Bell teamed up with Isbin for a work by Paganini that came to an unexpected halt when he forgot his place. "That was the abridged version," the violinist deadpanned. The concert "was getting long anyway," he added.
But Bell bounced back brilliantly with an unaccompanied showpiece by Vieuxtemps that puts "Yankee Doodle Dandy" through all sorts of virtuoso paces. That performance got the young audience cheering, and Mrs. Obama led the standing ovation before waving goodbye to the crowd.
Baltimore School for the Arts sophomore Nana Adjeiwaa-Manu had a wide smile on her face when the concert was over. "It's a tremendous honor to be here," said the cello student, who had attended a session with Weilerstein earlier. "I feel so blessed."
While the music students were attending the workshops, Mrs. Obama was in the State Dining Room presiding over the 2009 Coming Up Taller Awards, given to arts education projects in the United States, Mexico, Egypt and China. Such programs, Mrs. Obama said, demonstrate "the power of the arts to change young people's lives."