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PG Philharmonic teams up with PGCPS music students

Philharmonic 02SUITLAND — The entirety of Suitland High School’s stage was filled on Feb. 9 as the Prince George’s Philharmonic began the final preparations for its Youthful Collaboration Concert.

However, it was not just the professionals and volunteers of the philharmonic that claimed the stage at both the Feb. 9 rehearsal and Feb. 10 concert, but Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) students also performed in the spotlight.

The choirs from Suitland High and both the Thomas G. Pullen and Benjamin D. Foulois creative and performing arts academies, as well as instrumental students from throughout the county, shared the stage with the county philharmonic for a special concert that capstones the two organizations partnership.

“We have this wonderful thing where we go out into the community once a year – it’s usually the February program – and we do what we call a ‘side-by-side,’ said Jesus Manuel Berard, the philharmonic’s music director and conductor. “This is part of our involvement in the community because after all, we are the ‘community orchestra.’ So we have not only a mandate but a mission to be involved in the community in as many ways as we possibly can.”

Berard said the partnership between the philharmonic and PGCPS predates his tenure with the group, noting that his predecessor, Charles Ellis, started the program. One part of the partnership known as “side-by-sides,” where instrumental students have the opportunity to play with and next to the professional and volunteer musicians of the organization, was recently named after Ellis.

This year more than 100 choral students had the opportunity to perform in the concert and more than 25 student musicians performed alongside the professionals. Each year the program switches between Suitland and Northwestern high schools, Berard said, but this year Ken Boucher, Suitland High School’s music department head, and the school’s choir director invited the two academies to participate as well.Philharmonic 03

The point of the program, Berard said, is all about creating a legacy for classical music in the community.

“We’re celebrating young people that we hope will continue and improve upon what we’ve done and when they’re on stage with us, they’re just younger colleagues,” Berard said. “I’m used to being amazed by them. They have no limits.”

The 53-year-old institution has a rich history of supporting music education in the county. The side-by-side program began about six years ago, according to Boucher, and gives students an opportunity to learn and play with professionals, while the choir program gives students a professional concert to put on their resume.

“The opportunity to do things on a grand scale with an orchestra is priceless because it provides them a talking point and a kind of legitimacy. When they got to a college and are being interviewed, they’re not just some kid who sang in the school choir or church; they’re doing professional work,” Boucher said.

The philharmonic also works to provide lessons to students who would not otherwise be able to afford private music tutors.

The concert on Feb. 10 featured the combined choirs of the three schools singing Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the philharmonic’s orchestra. Boucher worked on the piece for months with his choir, breaking down the selection and putting it back together so that the students could understand and perform the piece. “Chichester Psalms” is written and performed in Hebrew, and in a mixed meter.

“It is incredibly hard. It may very well be the hardest piece that we’ve ever done,” he said.

The task was daunting, but eighth-grade Foulois student Samuel Grace did not shy away from the challenge. Grace was picked to perform a solo during a section of the choral performance.

“It’s pretty nerve-racking, but at the same time I was so ready to show these people what I’ve got,” Grace said.

While the hundred other choir members stood behind the orchestra, Grace stood alone at the front of the stage and sang, sometimes unaccompanied, under the direction of Berard.

The experience was once-in-a-lifetime Grace said and solidified his passion for performing.

“I feel overjoyed by this experience and this opportunity to work with such a great director and this orchestra is just amazing. I’m very overwhelmed by the opportunity,” he said.

While the choral piece provides the students with professional experience, the side by sides gives instrumental students a look into the professional world and what it takes to hold a position in the philharmonic.

Philharmonic 01“They’re looking, and they’re saying ‘wow, this is what this adult has to do to be able to play at this level,’” Boucher said.

Darian Bess is a student percussionist at Northwestern High School and the county honor band. He said playing next to professionals in the philharmonic was inspiring. Bess said he has gone out of his way to always surround himself with “people who are better” than himself at music and said the opportunity to learn from professionals was one he could not pass up.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for students to play with professionals and get the experience to see if its something they really want to do,” Bess said. “The level of musicality that is played here is very good. You don’t see it every day, coming from a high school and it’s a very good change of scenery.”

The experience, Bess said, has reassured him that he wants to pursue music professionally.

The concert also gave PGCPS educators a chance to share their passions as well. Kenmoor Middle School’s Choir Director Austin Murphy sought out the opportunity after hearing about the partnership during a professional development meeting. He wanted a chance to perform the high-caliber pieces and see first-hand the impact the philharmonic has on students.

“This is such unique setting for students in Prince George’s County to be able to play with such a great community orchestra. There are so many people in here who are former professionals or current professionals that have such a wealth of knowledge to share with our awesome young students, that they don’t get to see every day,” Murphy said. “You can’t replace this experience.”

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