BERKLEY — In January, the Berkley High School orchestra took first place at the WorldStrides Heritage Music 2013 Presidential Inauguration Festival in Washington, D.C. On top of the first-place trophy, Berkley also took home the Spirit of Washington, D.C., award.
The success in D.C. was just the most recent for an orchestra that has performed at its best for the past 13 years under director John Robertson. For 11 straight years, the BHS orchestra has taken home top marks in the Michigan State Band and Orchestra Association festivals.
Before January, the orchestra had performed in two other Heritage music festivals and took first place in both.
So, when Manhattan Concert Productions in New York was trying to find 10 ensemble orchestras to perform at the National Band and Orchestra Festival March 23 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the BHS orchestra stood out.
“That National Band and Orchestra Festival is a two-day event with renowned guests who provide recorded and written comments on schools’ performances, and we have invited 10 orchestras from across the country,” said Matthew Workman, director of public relations at Manhattan Concert Productions. “My dad sent me an article about the Berkley orchestra when they competed in D.C., and I reached out to Mr. Robertson and learned more about the program and realized they were a perfect fit for this national festival.”
When Robertson was notified that the BHS orchestra had been selected to perform at the historic hall, he said it took a few minutes for it to sink in.
“I was very excited, and it took a moment, but obviously it is something we would not pass up, and it did not take much to convince me to go,” Robertson said. “We normally go on trips every other year, but this is a tremendous opportunity and the students and parents jumped on board with it. And we have been practicing and making plans to visit different things in the city and putting on fundraisers to raise money.
“It is very exciting, and I have never been there myself. ... This is the first time our orchestra will ever play at Carnegie Hall.”
One of the things that sets the BHS orchestra apart from some of the schools they have competed against, Robertson said, is that usually orchestras of similar size contain string, wind and brass sections. Berkley, however, will take 95 students to Carnegie Hall who only play stringed instruments.
“I doubt any of the other schools performing at Carnegie will have this large of a string ensemble, because most include brass and wind and percussion,” Robertson said. “I think we have cultivated a very unique string orchestra sound here in Berkley. We have a bit of a reputation when we travel, with the quality of our performances, and we have developed a very warm and beautiful string tone that is rare to hear from other high school orchestras.”
Robertson doesn’t only work with a string orchestra throughout the year, however. Several performances include some of the top wind and brass players from the school’s band, including an upcoming performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 to close out the year.
Part of the reason the BHS orchestra has been so successful, Robertson said, is the continued support from the school district and the parents of the students.
“More so than other programs in the area, our parents are willing to make sure students have adequate instruments and private lessons, if needed,” he said. “I have been very fortunate to have students that come to class and work really hard, and I want them to enjoy the program and have fun. Our No. 1 goal is to become a pretty outstanding performing group, and the better you are at performing music, the more enjoyment you get from playing, and my students have worked hard for the past 13 years.”
When performing at Carnegie Hall, the BHS orchestra won’t be competing for a first-place trophy like the one they received in Washington, D.C. Rather, they will be there to learn more about performing orchestras, Workman said, and to see how schools from all over put together a performance.
For Robertson, he hopes his students can walk away with a little better grasp of classical music.
“I want (the students) to get a deeper love for classical music and see the possibilities and enjoyment you can get by playing classical music on a string instrument,” he said. “I am so surprised by how many students have not seen the Detroit (Symphony) Orchestra, and the music they listen to on the radio is completely different than what we do in class. Classical music is a dying art, and I want this experience to be something they take with them for the rest of their lives.”
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