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WHS orchestra in University of Iowa music invitational

WORTHINGTON -- The 25 ninth- through 12th-grade members of the Worthington High School (WHS) orchestra traveled south of the border last weekend to participate in the 2011 University of Iowa Orchestra Invitational in Iowa City, Iowa.

"This was a blue-ribbon opportunity to hear and play for excellent string students, not only from Minnesota, but also from major metropolitan areas of other states," said District 518 orchestra director Melanie Loy, coordinator of the two-day trip.

In all, six high school (and one middle school) orchestras from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa were part of the event.

The University of Iowa Orchestra Invitational is put on annually by the University of Iowa orchestras under the direction of Dr. William LaRue Jones, who also served as one of two guest clinicians for the attending groups.

"Dr. Jones and Henry Charles Smith, the two clinicians, are the highest caliber of adjudicators we could seek in a festival like this," Loy said.

"They are both internationally acclaimed, and this was a rare chance for us as a Midwest high school orchestra to work with them."

At the festival, WHS student string players listened to a few of the other student orchestras perform and be critiqued before also playing for the adjudicators, who offered comments on the group's overall performance and spent more than half an hour fine-tuning some aspects of each number.

"I liked what the clinicians had to say," commented sophomore cellist Tim Skog. "They suggested several little things that can help us improve our performance a lot."

Handel's "Concerto Grosso in G Major, opus 6, no. 1," "Iditarod" by contemporary composer Soon Hee Newbold, Leroy Anderson's playful "Plink, Plank, Plunk" and Bach's "Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor" featuring senior violinist Nicole Ektnitphong and junior violinist Anna Tims comprised the WHS concert program.

A master class for each string instrument -- violin, viola, cello and bass -- was also part of the time. Conducted by University of Iowa faculty members who are skilled performers in their own right, the hour-long classes gave the student musicians tips and pointers on things ranging from the mechanical set-up of their instruments to musicality.

"In the cello master class [led by Anthony Arnone, a New England Conservatory of Music-trained cellist], we had 18 cellos playing four-part cello music," said Elizabeth Luke, a sophomore cellist. "He incorporated skills instruction as we played music together as a 'cello choir.'"

Meanwhile, the student violists met with William Preucil, who literally wrote the Suzuki viola instruction book.

"These were phenomenal performers and educators for our students to be exposed to," said Loy. She noted the orchestra students raised funds for the trip by selling concessions last fall; they also paid for their own hotel rooms, while District 518 covered transportation costs.

The WHS students enjoyed a Friday evening gala concert that featured the dynamic Maia Quartet, a lively sonata for cello and double bass, and the University of Iowa's Chamber Orchestra playing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" overture by Felix Mendelssohn.

"The concert was very enlightening," said junior violist Grace Harms.

Added Hannah Mick, another junior violist, "I hadn't seen professional musicians being that expressive before; they really got into it.

"Seeing them made me want to improve and advance more as a musician."

Beth Habicht, who preceded Loy as the District 518 orchestra director with a 38-year tenure in that position, was one of the adult chaperones on the trip.

"This was absolutely fabulous for our kids," Habicht said. "You learn a lot by listening to and watching your peers playing, and hearing what the adjudicators have to say about their performances."

Gaining the simple first-hand knowledge that other high school students are playing string instruments in orchestras was another valuable element.

"We feel kind of alone as string students sometimes," said Jenny Majerus, a junior violinist. "There aren't many schools around here with orchestras, and it's nice to know there are other students out there working on similar things."

Ektnitphong, who is also a stand-out soccer athlete with plans to continue both her soccer- and violin-playing when she begins college at Gustavus Adolphus next fall, echoed Majerus' thoughts.

"The other schools we play against in sports don't usually have orchestras," she said. "This was a great experience for us, and a chance for us to show that Worthington High School has a really good orchestra."