For young players, tips from the maestro

Lorin Maazel rehearses the D.C. Youth Orchestra on Beethoven's Sixth Symphony at Coolidge Senior High.
Lorin Maazel rehearses the D.C. Youth Orchestra on Beethoven's Sixth Symphony at Coolidge Senior High. (Richard A. Lipski/washington Post)
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By Emma Brown
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Maestro Lorin Maazel, one of the music world's preeminent conductors, took to the stage at the District's Coolidge Senior High School Saturday afternoon to lead a group of 40 young musicians, all members of the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program, through a rehearsal of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

"This is like having Manny Ramirez coming to coach the Little League," whispered Maya Weil, 44, a youth orchestra board member and alumna, who watched from the wings.

The auditorium at Coolidge -- peeling paint, torn curtains and rain dripping through holes in the roof -- is a far cry from Lincoln Center, where Maazel conducted the New York Philharmonic for seven years, and the Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia," an opera house in Valencia, Spain, where he is music director. But it is home every Saturday for about 600 young musicmakers, the most advanced of whom played at the White House Easter Egg Roll in the spring and were rehearsing Saturday for a December performance at the Kennedy Center.

They launched into the first few bars of the symphony's third movement. Maazel, 79, in Washington to conduct weekend performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, listened -- one hand in his pocket, the other dancing with a borrowed baton.

"Are you folks familiar with the word 'skittery'?" he said to the violinists. "It's a bit skittery. The tempo could be a bit slower and a bit steadier. Don't let it get away from you."

They began again, and as the hour wore on, Maazel drew his hand from his pocket, controlled the swelling music with both arms and grinned.

"Power!" he said, clenching a fist during a crescendo. "You can make a much bigger sound."

Jordan Hamilton, a 17-year-old senior at Suitland High School in Prince George's County, said he was undaunted by the visit from the maestro, whom he considers the best living conductor in the world. "I was here to learn like any old classroom," said the cellist, who said he appreciated Maazel's light touch.

"Some conductors try to dictate every note. He just puts his hand out there and lets the music flow," said Hamilton, who practices his instrument three hours a day and is applying to some of the nation's top conservatories.

Not all of the orchestra's musicians are so ambitious. The program, a fixture on the city's music scene since 1960 and at Coolidge since 1961, is open to all students no matter their ability to play -- or pay. Students, who hail from the District and its suburbs and range from 4 to 21 years old, are divided by level into about 100 classes; a quarter receive scholarships.

"These are kids that may or may not go into music and come from all parts of the greater D.C. area, and from all walks of life," said Ava Spece, the orchestra's executive director. "It's a really great opportunity to be in the same breathing space with someone who has Maestro Maazel's depth of experience and notoriety."

Enrollment in the orchestra program is up 12 percent this fall over last, a rise Spece attributed to the appeal of the low-cost program in an ailing economy.

At the same time, space available at Coolidge for weekend musicmaking -- which has been more or less donated for the past five decades by the school district -- is shrinking as classrooms are reclaimed for remedial Saturday classes. Spece said she fears that as the Saturday school program grows, the orchestra program will have to move -- and where it would go is unclear.

"We sure would like to know that there's a place that we can call home," she said.

While the program's standouts played for Maazel, many of the younger students sat in the audience with their parents, some following along with sheet music.

Two of Dave Tomlinson's daughters, 6 and 9 years old, are taking violin lessons with the orchestra program. They started on scholarships and now pay full tuition, said Tomlinson, 33, a safety officer at Howard University who lives in Columbia Heights. "Whenever they find something that they're into and they push us, the parents, to get them there, it's worth it," he said as his younger daughter, Sanjula, held her ears during a dramatic, stormy moment in the symphony.

Maazel, unbothered by the humble setting, said the young musicians make him feel hopeful.

"Classical music is certainly not dead if young people like this are interested in keeping it going," he said.

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