Music & learning: Frederick All-County music festival

FREDERICK, Md. (Jan. 27) — In a span of minutes Saturday, the Frederick County Public Schools All-County High School Chorus here at Governor Thomas Johnson High School went from exuberant jubilation over the wonder God created in the world to a prayer that Mother Mary bring to her embrace the quarter million souls who were taken by the sea in the tsunami right after Christmas, 2004.

Frederick County Public Schools, All-County High School Chorus (Voxitatis rendering)

The ensemble’s director, Kenneth Elpus, from the University of Maryland, College Park, brought his doctoral training from Northwestern here to put the finishing touches on the six works performed. Even though the district’s choral directors had worked hard to prepare the group over the past few weeks, Mr Elpus and the ensemble still put in a solid day and a half of final rehearsals this morning and yesterday.

He’ll also conduct the Maryland Junior All-State Chorus in March, but the performance here revealed, beyond any doubt, the intimate connection we all have with the music we perform. At one point, he stepped down off the podium and had each row of the chorus move one riser level closer to his skillful hand.

Now, just to cover his bases, he also told us using words why music education was an important piece of the educational pie. That was for anyone who might not have understood the message from the music. He is, after all, on the editorial committees for the Journal of Research in Music Education and the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education.

“I’m a big fan of public schooling,” he said into the mic. “By that, I mean the entire scope of public schooling. I think your children are more than their PARCC score; they’re more than their SAT score, and there are things we can’t measure.”

But we can hear those things, and appreciate them, and rejoice in them. And love.

We can take moments to notice a “Flower of Beauty” (John Clements) or lift our voices in song at a “Festival Sanctus” (John Leavitt). And in this honor performance, made up of students from the district’s 10 high schools, we did that, thanks to the work put in by these 34 choristers.

Members of the chorus from Frederick County who have also auditioned and been accepted to perform with the Maryland All-State High School Chorus include sopranos Laura Dodson and Sarah Martin from Middletown High School and Bwari Ogendi from Frederick High School, as well as alto Amy Marie Cajigas and bass Blair De La Rosa from Tuscarora High School.

The All-County Orchestra, led by Terence O’Neill, the orchestra director at Bel Air High School in Harford County, performed next, after a quick stage reset.

One work, more than the others, provided a strong example of the hard work needed to put such a performance on stage with students from so many different schools: Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto Grosso in D minor” required not only virtuoso muscle memory in solo performers Kristyn Allgaier from Urbana High School on cello and concertmaster Hannah White from Brunswick High School on violin, but also the concentration of about 30 other musicians to work through three movements in varying styles.

For Ms Allgaier and Ms White, being on the first desk of their respective sections, the final performance brought a spotlight during several memorable moments. One came in a relatively lyrical section in Lauren Bernofsky’s “Heart of Fire.” The few moments, surrounded by rapid bowing and unrelenting pulse, sent the cello singing to us above a pizzicato accompaniment.

Finally, the evening’s largest all-county ensemble, the concert band, came to the stage under the direction of Christopher M Cicconi of Towson University.

Mr Cicconi said that he had worked with several honor ensembles like this one over the course of his career and that he made a quick trip home following the group’s final rehearsal to celebrate his son’s fourth birthday.

“Music is one of the only things that can bring us together,” he said near the end of the performance. “These events are crucial.”

Like the other guest conductors and Randy Rumpf, the FCPS curriculum specialist for music, he acknowledged the work of directors in the district’s schools, the dedication of parents and other supporters, and the training from good teachers.

But mostly, he acknowledged the hard work students had put in: “That’s a deeply emotional piece,” he said, almost in awe himself, after the group performed Percy Grainger’s setting of the “Irish Tune from County Derry,” which some people might know as “Danny Boy.” He continued after catching his breath, “I asked them to be emotionally tied to that piece, and I think they really portrayed that in their performance.”

Right after the Grainger, the ensemble took up “On This Bright Morning,” a work by David Maslanka, dedicated to a terminally ill friend. In introducing the work, Mr Cicconi said Mr Maslanka had passed away last summer.

The work is dramatic: arpeggios at one point in the piano accompanying lyrical soloists or duets on trumpet (Rodrigo Slone of Governor Thomas Johnson High School and Erin Sowers of Urbana High School), alto saxophone (Max Li of Urbana High School), and clarinet (Sarah Buckley of Linganore High School); driving quarter notes that pound our hearts with life’s many stressors at another point; quiet and peaceful resolutions of that anxiety at yet another.

Fellow clarinetist Isaac Cheston of Walkersville High School will join Ms Buckley in the All-State band next month, as will Amelia Jansen of Linganore High School on trumpet and Nicholas Brennan of Oakdale High School on euphonium.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.