GVSU Symphony Orchestra performs Beethoven with local high school students
Silence floods the performance hall at Caledonia High School. With only a swift motion from the conductor, the space fills with a single, resonating note to begin Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture.” As the formerly separate chamber and symphony orchestras unite, the annual Grand Valley State University "Side by Side Concert" blends the high school and collegiate musicians.
The concert, organized by Henry Duitman, GVSU director of orchestras, and Jesse Liker, Caledonia High School orchestra director, combined GVSU’s Symphony Orchestra with a local high school’s top orchestra to showcase both individual and combined performances Thursday, Oct. 12.
The combination of the orchestras and choice of Beethoven’s overture, Liker said, required the students to put plenty of work into rehearsals.
“The ‘Egmont Overture’ is an advanced piece of music,” Liker said. “It was written for the professional musicians of Beethoven’s time, so we spent the last month and a half learning the techniques necessary to be able to play a piece of that difficulty and trying to get the musical maturity, the style and the emotion that would be appropriate for a piece by Beethoven.”
While the Caledonia Chamber Orchestra combined with the GVSU Symphony Orchestra for their first practice together only an hour before the concert, Duitman and other string faculty had spent time between both orchestras making sure the sounds would blend, believing that the unique circumstances of the players uniting would prove to be valuable in highlighting the college orchestra’s growth.
GVSU concertmaster Lalia Mangione also felt a different dynamic within the Side by Side Concert as compared to her other performances. With GVSU orchestra members being assigned a high school music stand partner, Mangione assumed she was expected to play at an even higher level in which mistakes were not tolerated.
“When you’re sitting next to another college student, someone you’ve been rehearsing with the whole time, and you make a mistake, it’s understood,” Mangione said. “Then, around the high school students, I didn’t want to make any mistakes because I wanted them to keep that precedent of having more training and not making silly mistakes.”
While the Side by Side Concert was designed as a community outreach program, according to Duitman, there also emerged an opportunity to showcase the hard work that his own orchestra had been doing.
“Anytime they get to play for a different audience, it’s good experience for the GVSU Symphony Orchestra because it gives them a chance to share what they’ve been doing,” Duitman said. “When they’re sitting side by side with students, they’ll understand that there’s a big difference between what they’re doing now and what’s done in high school.”
Duitman and Liker said the concert was a way to pair students with students to highlight what hard work and musicianship can accomplish. To Mangione, that juxtaposition is a vital tool in inspiring the high school students to keep appreciating their craft.
“I hope that they took away that if you keep working hard, you can reach these other levels; some of those shifts are hard for me, too, or some of those fingerings are difficult, but that we can work on them together,” Mangione said. “As a musician, you’re constantly a student, regardless of what level you reach.”
Mangione recognized her role as a leader of her high school partner but said she walked away from the performance feeling simply like a fellow musician.
“The kids worked really, really hard, and they were good players," she said. "I assumed that they would learn from us, as we’re supposed to be more experienced and all that. I gave my stand partner a few little tips, but beyond that, it was fun just to make music together.”
For Liker, the goal of the performance was to inspire his students to keep pursuing music. Through prior learning and preparation for a more professional concert, Liker wanted to reassure his students that they have the musical prowess to keep playing.
“We want the students to feel comfortable being lifelong musicians,” Liker said. “So this concert is an opportunity for them to see that the skills that they’ve been learning over the last couple of years will allow them to continue, and I hope they want to keep enjoying music.”