The Hills Are Alive: UNH Chamber Music Project
It's 5:15 a.m.; it's January; it's cold and dark. I'm sitting in my car waiting for student musicians to arrive. We're going to drive north, south, and west in New Hampshire over the course of several days. Why did this seem like such a good idea a few months ago?
The inspiration for a tour for University of New Hampshire chamber music students started back in August. Donors wanted to promote chamber music at UNH, and we tried to think of a creative way to highlight the chamber music program. Why not have the UNH students perform in high schools around the state? Everyone knows how much musicians like to perform to enthusiastic audiences; we all are hams at heart, after all! It would be good for faculty and students to get out into the state and visit more music programs, particularly those in the North Country that we don't visit often. And finally, we hoped that we could help to support the music programs at the schools we visited. It could be a win-win situation for everyone.
We decided to kick off the tour with the student woodwind quintet Keepin' It Trill. This group of students (Abigail Rienzo, flute; Kelsey Gallagher, clarinet; Katrina Walczyk, oboe; Emma Shapiro, bassoon; and Abigail Levy, horn) has worked together for three years and plays at a high level. Their coach during the entire time has been Janet Polk, herself a veteran of countless school concerts. Janet would be able to help them put together an attractive program, and also work with the students to present themselves well, introduce the music in a concise and lively way, and keep the concert interesting. They were quick studies! When they previewed their program for me, I immediately got excited about the possibilities. This was going to be something special.
Before we knew it, it was a cold January morning and Keepin' It Trill was bundled into two cars with program coordinator Alexis Zaricki, clarinet professor Elizabeth Gunlogson, and me, the flute teacher. Our first destination was Gilford High School where we were met with a friendly face, that of UNH alumna Lyvie John Beyrent (UNH, '04). Lyvie welcomed us warmly, and then the quintet performed for her band students. The program of works by Valerie Coleman, Rameau, Taffanel, Ligeti, and Paquito d'Rivera was well-received there, as we had hoped.
After the performance, flutist Abbi Rienzo asked the students, "Does anyone have any questions? You can ask anything about college, about UNH, about playing chamber music – anything, even what we had for breakfast." Naturally the first student question was, "What did you have for breakfast?" Determined to speak the truth, Abbi sheepishly admitted, "Half a brownie." The tone was set, everyone relaxed, and multiple questions followed – most about college or music, thankfully, rather than our eating habits. It was a great start to the tour.
We scrambled back into the cars and made our way north to Littleton. Melanie Donahue met us and set the group up in her spacious band room. The quintet launched into its program again, this time playing for about sixty-five 7th-12th graders and a group of teachers. The audience was truly enthusiastic, and when the concert was over, several even asked for the students' autographs. (Now we're talking! It's always fun to be treated like a rock star!) Once again the students had a million questions for the UNH students. We reluctantly pulled away and, eyes on the clock, made a bee-line for the car.
We were on our way to Pittsburg, the northernmost town in New Hampshire, and we had a long ride in front of us. Lunch was a quick pit stop for fast food, and eating in the car was entertaining, to say the least, given that we were all a little foggy about exactly which route to take. Let's just say that given the choice between a GPS, Google directions, and a map, one should not always trust a GPS. A route that might save miles in summer can be very special (translation: steep, winding, and snow covered) in the winter. One memorable moment is preserved forever in a video taken by horn player Abby Levy: my Volkswagen Beetle, loaded down with people and instruments, driving up and over what looked like an endless mountain. The soundtrack is non-stop giggling, with a slight tinge of hysteria. Luckily we did not slide backward down the mountain; we cruised into Pittsburg a few minutes late, but happy to be there. Or anywhere.
Music teacher Johanna Schillemat was our host at Pittsburg High School. She ushered us into the café-torium, and we learned that the entire school was going to come to the concert. Wow, what a nice surprise! The littlest kids sat on the floor, and the older ones claimed seats. When the concert ended, the first question was from a young man who seemed to be particularly taken by our all-female quintet: "Can I take my picture with you?" The UNH students were happy to oblige him, and the moment was documented for posterity by a local reporter. When the picture appeared in the local paper a few days later, its caption read "Trilling Visit."
Following three concerts and a lot of miles, the students were ready for a break. After dinner at the Dancing Bear Pub, we retired to our motel rooms in the Northern Comfort Motel. Day one had been a complete success: fun, exciting, successful, and all of the things we had hoped for when the tour was planned. The UNH students were having the times of their lives – and so were the rest of us.
Did I mention that we did this tour smack in the middle of a cold snap? When we headed to the morning performance at Colebrook High School, the thermometer read -14 degrees. Really. My favorite image of the entire trip (sadly not caught on film) is that of our dignified Prof. Gunlogson, desperately trying to warm up her feet by holding them up to the hot-air-dryer in the ladies room. And did I note that she is originally from Alaska?
The next morning Johanna Schillemat once again met us at Colebrook; she does double duty teaching at both Colebrook and Pittsburg schools. Johanna had the quintet perform in the auditorium for approximately 300 people in grades 3-12. This was the largest space the group played in, and also the largest audience. Since the Colebrook school doesn't have a bassoon, bassoonist Emma Shapiro was in particular demand during the question period. Next it was back to the car and on to Plymouth High School, where Will Gunn hosted the group's final concert for a group of students in the band room. We limped back to Durham later that afternoon, tired but really pleased.
A week later, Prof. Andrew Boysen, again assisted by Alexis Zaricki, led a day-long tour by two other student groups. Oboes, clarinets, and bassoons played part of the Beethoven Octet, and a marimba trio performed Afta-Stubal by Mark Ford. I do mean "performed," since the piece involved the percussionists drumming on the marimba legs, circling around the instrument while they played, and other theatrical gestures. The groups performed at Hillsboro Deering, where the teacher is Heidi Welch; ConVal High School, with James Wickam (UNH, '09, '10G); and Concord, with Gabe Cohen (UNH, '06G). If you want a taste of how the day went, UNH Admissions made a short video of the day, which you can watch at http://youtu.be/Ssq2NJjgkYw.
Our final foray into chamber music touring for 2014 took place a week later. This time we pulled out all the stops with a brass quintet, vocal madrigal trio, string and piano ensemble, and the woodwind quintet Windsync. The students were troopers as the bus made its way first to Souhegan High School, where Carl Benevides had the groups play for his band students, and then on to Keene High School, led by Rick Anderson. Once again the question and answer sessions were a highlight. As trumpet player Tasha Jost said, "I think it is wonderful for the high school kids to get a chance to ask questions of us, as we are them in just a few years. When I was in high school, I had my sister to ask. Many of the students we saw don't have that, so this was an excellent opportunity for them to have their questions answered. It was a great opportunity for our brass quintet to play, too!"
What is next for the chamber music tours? We are in the process of planning for next year's tours. We thought it was successful in every way. Best of all was the chance for UNH musicians to share their enthusiasm for chamber music with interested student musicians in the state. When that happens, it's easy to overlook the cold, the early mornings, the old bus and winding roads. All of those things disappear when "the hills are alive."