PSO connects with high school students with a crescendo

Courtesy of Jason Cohn | Moon Doh conducts a strings and brass sectional rehearsal with student and professional musicians practicing side by side.

Emma Polen | News Editor

April 13, 2023

At the Mary Pappert School of Music, Duquesne students have the chance to work with award-winning musicians every day. This week, the opportunity was extended to local high school students.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Side-by-Side concert provided a full program performed by students sitting alongside professional musicians in Heinz Hall Tuesday evening.

The participating 58 high school students from 28 regional schools were required to submit an application to be considered for the opportunity, and commit to multiple sectional and full-group rehearsals over a five-week period leading up to Tuesday’s concert.

Rhian Kennedy is an adjunct professor of flute and piccolo at Duquesne, as well as principal piccolo chair flute for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO).

The participating high school students are mainly juniors and seniors in high school with an interest in expanding their musician experiences, but a majority are not going into music as a career, Kennedy said.

“I hope they have some “wow” moments getting to hear what it’s like to play with this caliber of orchestra,” said Jim Nova, second trombone in PSO and Duquesne’s brass area coordinator and professor of trombone.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is composed of string instruments as well as woodwind, brass and percussion. For the woodwind and brass student players especially, Side-by-Side may be their first chance to play with strings in an orchestral setting in Heinz Hall, Kennedy said.

Elizabeth Bennett, a senior flute player, spoke about her anticipation before the event.

“I have been coming to Heinz Hall for years to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony, and it is truly surreal to have the opportunity to perform with them onstage,” Bennett said.

She plans to go to college for flute performance and anthropology, and Duquesne is one of her options.

“I’m very interested in ethnomusicology—the study of why and how human beings are musical—because the most valuable part of music, for me, has always been the community that it creates,” she said, “and I would love to explore the way people interact with music within and across cultures.

Bennet was not the only student considering studying music at Duquesne. Student string players Hannah Bedeck and Heys Reyes are both headed to Duquesne next year to explore their musical interests in new ways–Bedeck with violin performance and Reyes with music therapy.

Bedeck earned her place next to PSO violinist Jennifer Orchard, who also happened to be her violin teacher. From private lessons where Bedeck’s teacher taught her phrasing and character for the Side-by-Side program, to performing together at Heinz Hall, Bedeck said it was an honor to sit next to her teacher in a professional orchestral setting.

Reyes prefers performing jazz music, so the orchestra setting was, for him, “a once in a lifetime opportunity to play on this stage,” he said. “It’s really been an honor.”

Sophomore percussionist Wesley Madge has other plans after graduation.

“I don’t plan on taking music to college, but I want to make it a part of my life as long as I can,” Madge said.

Even before Tuesday’s performance, Side-by-Side provided students opportunities for personal coaching and full orchestral rehearsals, Nova said.

Side-by-Side is unique in that it connects students with musician professionals with tips they might not otherwise have access to, Kennedy said, “much like a youth football player getting to play with the Steelers for a day.”

The Side-by-Side concert is just one of many opportunities for young Pittsburgh musicians to get involved in music groups outside of school, including the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra (PYSO) and the Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestra (TRYPO).

“They’re all great opportunities for them to experience different music in different ways, different conductors, different people around them, different coaches. Any time you can do any of that stuff…even though you may not go on to be a musician, it changes who you are as a person,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy grew up performing in her own local youth orchestras in Calgary, Canada, and now she coaches the Pittsburgh Youth Concert Orchestra (PYCO) seasonally.

“I believe very strongly in the power of music, to influence you and your power to learn,” Kennedy said. “Music is a language that is wordless. And so it reaches human beings. On a very deep level.”

Nova also had an early start in performing alongside professional musicians, joining every youth orchestra he could while he was a high school trombone player in Connecticut.

“I had an unquenchable thirst for playing,” he said.

Nova was excited to play Gustav Mahler’s “Totenfeier,” a specific arrangement of the piece which the trombonist had never played before. The name translates to “celebration of the dead” and was written originally as its own piece but incorporated into Mahler’s second symphony.

The program of pieces for Tuesday’s concert included three technically challenging works.

The symphony first played Nancy Galbraith’s “A Festive Violet Pulse,” a flowing melodic work with both loud and triumphant and quiet and contemplative parts.

Galbraith was in the audience as well, and she received a shout out after the performance.

Moon Doh, the assistant conductor of the PSO, conducted the student and professional musicians through the program.

He introduced the second piece, Gustav Mahler’s “Totenfeier,” explaining to the audience that the work was over 20 minutes, with various dynamically complicated parts, and Doh promised that it would move everyone who listened.

“We’d like to invite you on this musical journey to reflection, contemplation, joy, sadness, moments of light, darkness and death,” Doh said.

During moments of “Totenfeier,” the volume of the score made the musicians play so quietly that their breath was more audible than the actual notes they played, and the scraping of their bow across the strings louder than the notes.

The symphony finished with a third piece, “Intermedio no. 4” from “La Boda de Luis Alonso” by Gerónimo Giménez.

The arrangement included castanet and triangle interludes, and the piece concluded with multiple fortissimo crescendos, met with standing applause from the audience.

Throughout the program, students and professional musicians worked side by side to perform the piece, sometimes sharing music or turning each other’s pages.

“This kind of work is vital, because it keeps us connected to the community in a different way than just performing does,” Nova said about the PSO’s annual commitment to put together the Side-by-Side experience, which educates students and directly connects them to professionals in their field.

“We need to support our students in their endeavors, and that includes arts and sports and math and science so that…there are audiences for us who are professionals now but also for the ones…who are going to be professionals in the future,” Kennedy said.