Creating Symphonic Fusion With The Seattle Collaborative Orchestra

For most people, teaching music to over 100 high schoolers a a day would keep them busy enough. For starters, there's planning concerts, rehearsing every day and helping kids with the technical requirements of their instruments. Then there's lending a supportive ear to the kids and advising them on musical, scholastic and social issues and working with the parents' booster group on fund raising. I suspect the list is much longer.

But my friend Anna Edwards, conductor of the nationally-recognized Roosevelt High School Orchestra, wanted to improve her skills as a conductor so after more than 20 years of teaching, she took a voluntary 20% drop in her workload and enrolled in the University of Washington's School of Music. She has been working towards her Doctor of Musical Arts since Sept. 2011. The DMA is a degree that combines high-level performance with music academics. One of the requirements is to perform a recital. For an instrumentalist, one could perform solo pieces or perhaps include a pianist, but for a conductor, you have to find yourself an orchestra.

Anna called me over the summer and asked me what I thought of her putting together a group to play a concert. It would be modelled after the Seattle Symphony's Side-by-Side concept which sends roughly 20 Symphony musicians to one of the local high schools with ambitious music departments (e.g. Roosevelt and Garfield) to play a concert. Symphony musicians sit next to and mentor high schoolers. These concerts are always a huge success and fun for everyone involved. She also asked if I would like to play. I, of course, said yes to both. Within a matter of months, this idea came to fruition in the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra concert on October 23rd. It took place in Roosevelt's auditorium with the help of countless people including her fabulous Parents Boosters and several generous donors who helped defray costs.

The Orchestra was composed of many of Anna's current students from Roosevelt, colleagues of hers at the UW School of Music and a dozen Seattle Symphony members spread throughout the strings, winds and brass. There was even a 7th grade percussionist. The spirit of cooperation was palpable as everyone worked hard to put together a difficult program. The common denominator in the group was Anna herself as every one of us had experienced her love of music in one form or another. One of my Symphony colleagues told me that she was his first youth symphony conductor when he was a little kid growing up in Seattle.

Anna asked her dear friend Sarah Bassingthwaighte to compose a piece for the occasion. Sarah spoke to the audience about the Cascade Mountains being the inspiration for her piece, titled A Mountain Symphony. Tragically, Sarah's mom, who was her biggest supporter and ally, died unexpectedly just a week before the performance, which Sarah dedicated to her memory. I had tears in my eyes as she spoke and I suspect I was not alone. The two-movement work captures the grandness and the power of the mountains and the variety of feelings one has when walking on their trails.

The biggest work on the program was Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. This is a difficult work for any orchestra but what the students might have lacked in experience, they made up in dedication. All the solos were played by students with pros sitting nearby to offer pointers and moral support. Anna's direction was clear and calm while the audience's response was loud and enthusiastic. I know I'm not the only one looking forward to the next outing of the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra.

Rachel Swerdlow
Seattle Symphony, viola
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