How do you get to the Walt Disney Concert Hall? The Santa Monica High School Symphony Orchestra knows. On Sunday, February 18, the orchestra played a full program of challenging music in the nearly sold out hall as part of the “Sounds About Town” series, which supports youth ensembles in the Los Angeles area. The orchestra’s program opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Procession of the Nobles, after which the wind players exited so that the strings could play Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5. Gershwin’s American in Paris, which featured many soloists, won the orchestra a standing ovation, and ended the first half of the program. After a short intermission, the orchestra returned to end the concert with four movements from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 (“Little Russian”). Orchestra director Joni Swenson, who was “extremely pleased” by the concert, said: “I’m impressed with the professionalism the students showed. For a high school student, it’s amazing to have the focus to play an entire concert of such demanding music.” The orchestra traveled a long road on its way to Disney Hall. It first recorded and submitted a CD over a year and a half ago. A few months later, it was invited to test the Hollywood Bowl’s newly installed sound shell as a sort of live audition for Disney Hall. When Swenson was notified that the group would perform this year, the orchestra stepped up its already strenuous rehearsal schedule. Besides its usual practice sessions, which include one school period each day and one-hour sectionals after school once a week, the group also attended three-hour rehearsals twice a week after school during the weeks preceding the concert, and two more three-hour rehearsals on Saturday and Sunday morning. “We had tons of hard rehearsals,” said freshman cellist Jonathan Li. “But it’s an honor to be this orchestra.”The Symphony Orchestra has won many competitions, the most recent being the First Place award at the American String Teachers Association’s National Orchestra Festival in Reno, Nevada. Besides winning attention and honors as an ensemble, the orchestra includes some extraordinary individuals. Over 15 of them have been accepted into this year’s All-State honor band, and over 70 of them participated in last year’s CODA honor orchestra.Several seniors, who plan on pursuing music professionally, have flown around the country for auditions, as they are being courted by several music conservatories. Swenson credits many people for the success of the orchestra. “I want to thank the sectional coaches, the elementary and middle school music teachers, the supportive Santa Monica community, the parent groups that gives so much financial support, and the school district for understanding the importance of keeping the arts in schools when other districts are decimating their arts budgets.”Orchestra members described performing at Disney Hall as an “enormous honor” and an “amazing experience.” Sophomore Ian Scheffler, who played a prominent bass clarinet solo in An American in Paris, commented: “Having a solo in Disney Hall is something I can tell my grandkids about.” Senior Chris Parise, who played the cymbals with such energy in the Tchaikovsy finale that he bent one out of shape and had to run offstage for a spare, thought the orchestra “didn’t miss a beat.” Said sophomore Ben Bartelt, who played both French horn and viola during the concert, “A lot of people dream about playing in Disney Hall, but we got do it.” After the concert, audience members met the orchestra members in the lobby. Many held bouquets of various sizes and colors. Some students’ family members flew in from as far as the East Coast to see them. Their pride was palpable. Instead of taking a well-deserved break, the orchestra will continue their rigorous rehearsals in preparation for their 10 day trip to China in April.
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