Review: Musical Extravaganza showcases area students

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Escalante Middle School seventh-grader Seth Thornburg, left, son of Mike and Debby Thornburg, and eighth-grader Natalie Miner, daughter of Mason and Karina Miner, perform with the Seventh and Eighth Grade Orchestra under the direction of Rusty Charpentier during the second annual School Music Extravaganza on Wednesday evening at Whalen Gymnasium at Fort Lewis College.

By Ann Butler Herald staff writer

Whether they’re elementary school students or graduating high school seniors, violinists, handbell ringers or maraca players, students in La Plata County are learning the highs and lows of music.

More than 300 of them displayed what they have learned Wednesday evening at the second annual School Music Extravaganza, a collaboration between Music in the Mountains, the Fort Lewis College Music Department, 3rd Avenue Arts, the Community Concert Hall at FLC and the Durango Friends of the Arts.

Participating were Bayfield Elementary School, Bayfield and Escalante middle schools, St. Columba Catholic School and Durango High School. While it was a shame none of the students in Durango School District 9-R’s elementary schools or Miller Middle School got the performance experience, it did make the program more manageable for attendees, coming in at two hours on the nose.

The concert was a clear demonstration of the progression of music learning students undergo, from basic concepts of rhythm, tempo and reading music to sophisticated pieces such as the stunning first movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins, showcasing the talents of Nolan Reed, Mallory Shanks, Iliana Sawyer and Nick Wilbur.

The four soloists asked Director Katharine Reed to let them play with the DHS Symphonic Orchestra sans conductor, and she let them go for it. Everyone rose to the challenge, just as they did when receiving a superior mark of 1, the highest mark possible, at the recent Colorado High School Activities Association’s Large Group Festival.

The DHS Concert Band played a complex piece, “K2,” by Julie Giroux, which allowed all the instrument sections, particularly the percussion, to shine.

Inspiring, talented teachers are a key part of the mix. Bayfield students clearly adore “Mr. U,” also known as Lech Usinowicz. He programmed a variety of pieces for his students, and they delighted in making music.

The participants in the Discipline, Respect and Unity through Music program, also delighted in taking home a check for $500 from sponsor Alpine Bank for getting the most votes in the bank’s Facebook Video Challenge. The kids’ video featured them playing music on their playground equipment while shouting that they needed instruments.

All the teachers clearly made an effort to expose their students to some of the seminal pieces of the classical music canon.

Kudos go to St. Columba Harmony Handbell Ensemble and its director, Martha Sandner. She programmed a delightfully funny yet musically sound “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg, a trio that featured Matthew McLaughlin and Sandner’s children Daniel and Emily Sandner in a spot-on performance.

Was it all perfect? Of course not. That’s part of the learning process. I’m sure every musician from Yo-Yo Ma to Dizzy Gillespie hit more than a few sharps and flats before mastering their instruments.

Escalante students benefit from having two music teachers, Evelyn Black for band and Alex “Rusty” Charpentier for orchestra. The Seventh and Eighth Grade Band performed another highlight of the evening, Grieg’s “Peer Gynt.”

The evening ended with an impressive performance of “Let Freedom Ring.” Fort Lewis College music professor and coordinator of Music in the Mountain’s Goes to School program Jonathan Latta conducted all the students at all ages and skill levels, and instruments spread out across the stage and up into the stands.

It was a Herculean effort, and it had to affect the younger students, getting to play with the “big kids.” In fact, that may have been the biggest takeaway for the younger students – if you keep with it and practice hard, you, too, can play like this.

Because they had to turn so many people away last year when the event was held at the concert hall, which seats about 620, organizers moved the event to Whalen Gymnasium. The move worked in a number of ways and was problematic in a couple of others.

More seating definitely was available, and because of the bleacher seating, families with young children didn’t have to worry as much when their kids got a little antsy. It also made it easier for people to arrive late or leave early.

The bad news was that the seats aren’t as comfortable as those in the concert hall, so people needed a good stretch at the end. It was a small price to pay for seeing the next generation’s musicians and audiences. The future looks bright indeed.

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