Seventeen of Fairfax County’s most talented high-school-age musicians recently learned firsthand the vast difference between playing in a professional orchestra versus a school band. This rare eye- and ear-opening opportunity came through their participation in the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra’s highly selective, two-year old educational initiative, the Fairfax County All-Stars Youth Orchestra.
Immediately, after the initiative’s recent culminating performance at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts—featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy” and excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”—the word that many of the young musicians used to describe the experience was an unabashed “amazing.”
For flutist Angel Estrada, 18, a student at Annandale High School, the evening’s performance, playing side-by-side with professional musicians was “a lot better than I expected; it was tops.” Standing backstage during intermission, Estrada, a student of the flute since 5th grade, further shared, “It was very powerful, and I connected emotionally.”
Standing nearby, McLean High School student and bassoonist Stephanie Manning, 16, declared, “Today was a long day, but I was totally engrossed in the music. This is definitely an experience I’ll take with me.” Returning to the All-Stars program for a second year, Manning, who studied the violin and flute prior to the bassoon, enthused, “This time was just as wonderful.”
Oakton High School violist Soni Bae and violinist Yilun Zhou were both strongly motivated by the experience. Bae, 15, who has been studying the viola since 4th grade, said: “There was so much positive energy and so much fun in expressing our love of music.” Zhou, 14, who has studied the violin since she was 6, said she was impressed and influenced by how “well prepared” the professional musicians are, and the experience convinced her “I have a lot more to learn.” During the actual performance, she said, “I was deeply inside the music; it’s the best we’ve ever done.”
Cellist Vincent Carter, 17, a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology from Springfield, also was impressed by the “higher standard” in which the student musicians were held and the “prestige” of the entire experience. Although he intends to study mechanical engineering in college, music, said Carter—who has played the cello since 4th grade—will always be the “icing on the cake.”
FSO’s executive director, Jonathan Kerr, in a conversation shortly before the Mason concert, anticipated the palpable excitement of this year’s All-Stars. The reaction after last year’s inaugural concert, he recalled, “almost felt like a pep rally.”
Stoking that kind of passion for music-making is a core mission of the All-Stars initiative, which specifically endeavors to “inspire the next generation of classical musicians,” Kerr said, emphasizing “you want to capture that energy; that’s essential for any organization.”
An expansion of its existing commitment to arts education, the impetus for creating All-Stars, Kerr said, was motivated by conversations about how to celebrate FSO’s 2017-2018, 60th anniversary season. Officially launched in 2017, which coincided with Fairfax County’s 275th anniversary, the All-Stars Youth Orchestra selects its members each year via a competitive audition process that requires the submission of a video through YouTube.
This year’s video required eligible applicants—Fairfax County students in grades 7-to-12—to demonstrate their skills by playing selected excerpts from the two different “Romeo and Juliet” works as well as a solo piece of their choice no longer than three minutes. According to Kerr, the selection panel—composed of principal players and Christopher Zimmerman, FSO’s music director and conductor—only sees the audition videos and does not know where the applicants study.
The All-Stars time frame is remarkably rapid. The video submission deadline and the acceptance notification happen in December, followed by the orchestral experience that consists of three or four mentoring sessions and four full-orchestra rehearsals in January and then the side-by-side concert in February.
Describing the All-Stars as a “joyous” part of FSO’s mission, Zimmerman, in a brief conversation between the final rehearsal and the concert, noted that the ability to handle this rapid pace is a key factor in who is selected. “Our choice,” he explained, “has a lot to do with technical ability and musicality, but they also need to have the ability to put something together very quickly.”
An initiative that is expected to grow and in its first year, All-Stars musicians were selected from high schools in four of Fairfax County’s nine supervisory districts. This year, they came from eight of those districts, and the aim next year, Kerr said, is to have young musicians from all nine districts. “Our long-term goal is to encourage as many [applicants] as possible,” he said, suggesting that even those not selected learn about the crucial process of auditioning.
While the All-Stars is one of FSO’s newest initiatives, the orchestra—honored in 2013 as the “Best Classical Orchestra Ensemble” by the Washington Area Musical Awards—boasts a long history of community and educational outreach. “The Symphony is passionate about arts education and views it as equally important as performance in concert. … It’s important for the legacy we leave behind,” said Kerr, a classical saxophonist who found his true calling in arts administration.
Although the culminating concert is always a high point, for Kerr, the interaction between the young musicians and their professional counterparts is the heart of the All-Stars initiative.
The All-Stars mentors, like their musical charges, are chosen because of certain traits. Not all great musicians are cut out to be mentors, Kerr acknowledged, saying they require “patience and having the heart of a good teacher.” Two of 2018’s All-Star mentors, who personify those traits, are David Salness, FSO concert master and leading first violin, and Marion Baker, principal cellist.
Reflecting on his role as a mentor during a pre-concert filming of the All-Stars by Fairfax County Government Television Channel 16, Salness said, “I try to be a cheerleader, an inspirational leader, and have a good time with them. If you’re not having a good time, what’s the point?” Emphasizing that he, too, is a major beneficiary of the mentoring experience, he offered, “It keeps me in touch with where young people are. It’s something I cherish. They delight me, challenge me and bring energy. … It keeps FSO very engaged with community, allows the community to feel part of the orchestra.”
Baker recalled his own experience playing with a professional orchestra for the first time. “It’s something you remember for the rest of your life,” he enthused. Likewise, he noted, “I learn a lot from them,” and he marveled at how much the level of young musical talent has gone “up and up.” Also, for the students playing with a professional orchestra, he said, “they hear a sound they may not have heard before; they get a taste of the next step.”
One of the initiative’s most dramatic moments, Kerr suggested, occurs when the All-Stars move on from the mentoring to the challenges of the rehearsals—the working out of all the nuances that separate the mechanics of making music to real musicianship—and “they realize this is the real moment.”
When she found out that she was accepted as part of the 2018 All-Stars, violist Bae, speaking before Channel 16’s camera, recalled that she and her mother cried. In addition to her work with her FSO mentors, she said she practiced every day because she “wanted to be accepted by the professionals.”
Like Bae, All-Star George Pekarsky, 15, a student at Chantilly High School, who has been studying the violin since about the age of four, said the role of his FSO mentor “wasn’t really notes; it was more artistry, musicality.” Also, it gave him “insight into playing in the real world … and if I’m going to make it in music, I need to learn to do this.”
Working with his mentors from FSO’s flute section allowed him to better understand his instrument, said All-Star Estrada. It taught him “how the flute fits into a concert orchestra … about all the little details in playing.” He further acknowledged, “This is very different from playing in a high school ensemble or youth orchestra.”
For All-Star cellist Colin Hill, 16, a student at George C. Marshall High School, the program provided “a lot of insight on how to step your level up.” A student of the cello for eight years, besides enhancing his musical skills, he said, “I learned how to communicate … how to act … the etiquette of being in a professional setting.”
While the prime goal of the All-Stars is to “inspire” that next generation,” both Zimmerman and Kerr believe the initiative is succeeding in a number of other important ways, too.
“We’re looking to develop audiences and donors and supporters, too,” Kerr said. “From our perspective, we’ve succeeded if we can leave a lasting impression, leave them with that spark.”
For audiences, Zimmerman further proposed, “it’s intriguing to see young players and the talent that they have … and when an audience sees the nurturing of young musicians, they love it.” And “educating our students musically, whether they become part of an orchestra or part of the audience, it helps music flourish.”