Gerard Schwarz rapped his baton on his music stand, abruptly shutting off the strains of a Mahler symphony performed by an orchestra of 221 high school students.
Schwarz, who conducts the Seattle Symphony, wanted a softer, richer sound. On the third try, the students captured the musical mood he was aiming for. Elation briefly lit up the orchestra.
Spokane is playing host to about 1,600 high school musicians, plus their band, choir and orchestra directors, this weekend as the National Association for Music Education holds its annual conference at the Spokane Convention Center. Students from six states are performing with honor bands, orchestras, choirs and jazz bands. In all, about 6,000 people are participating.
It’s a select group of young musicians, said conference manager Bruce Caldwell. Last fall, about four students auditioned for each available spot. The musicians who are chosen spend the weekend practicing with their peers from other states, and they perform a concert under the tutelage of top conductors.
“These students get to see true professional musicians,” said Caldwell. Schwarz, for example, has multiple Grammy nominations and a conducting style sometimes compared to Leonard Bernstein’s. “I can go to almost any music educator in the nation, and they’d be wowed that we have him for our All-Northwest Orchestra.”
Violinist Travis Wichtendahl emerged energized after a three-hour practice session with Schwarz.
“It’s incredible. He has a keen ability to transmit the mood of the pieces,” said Wichtendahl, a senior at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene.
Today at 4 p.m., the All-Northwest Orchestra will perform movements from Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 is “almost like an expressionist painting,” Wichtendahl said. “Sweet pianissimos” give way to dark moods in the music. “It’s neurotic – sort of bipolar,” and a good conductor helps bring that out, he said.
Victoria Karschney, a Ferris High School sophomore, is a French horn player in the All-Northwest Orchestra. “There’s no other place I can be with people of this caliber unless I was sitting with a professional orchestra,” she said.
Only about 2 percent of high school musicians will pursue a professional career in music, according to Caldwell, a retired band instructor. But the arts are still vital to school curricula, he said.
“The best students in your calculus class are almost always involved in the arts,” he said. “I don’t think they’re taking the arts because they’re smarter. I think the arts help expand a person’s thinking skills.”
Wichtendahl, who practices his violin two hours a day on weekends, plans to study mathematics or biology in college. But he’s hoping to continue playing with a college orchestra or an ensemble group.
So does violinist Bryant Baird, a Lake City High School senior, who wants to become an engineer.
Violin lessons have been part of his life for 11 years. “Through middle school, I loathed it, but my mom pushed me through,” he said. “Now, I love to play.”