July 24, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Opportunity of a lifetime

Staff Writer

MEDINA — Sixty-five orchestra members, who normally perform in front of a small audience in their Medina High School auditorium, found themselves playing in front of 2,500 Russians passionate about music.

For their spring break, students from all three orchestras at Medina High flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, to perform two standing-room-only concerts before some went on to Moscow for three days of sightseeing.

“It was kind of a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. I knew I’d probably never get to do it again, so it was definitely worth the money,” said senior Hannah Bronson, who plays the viola. “It was definitely more than I expected. We performed in a huge venue of 2,500 people. They were really receptive to us. It was phenomenal.”

Erena Lee (below), a violin soloist with a Medina High School orchestra, takes her concert bows at Cappella Hall in Russia. The orchestra traveled to Russia on spring break as part of an International Music Festival called “Meetings on the Neva River.” The students performed twice, once with a Russian youth orchestra and once by themselves, to standing-room-only crowds. Members of the Medina High School Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony Orchestra of Dunaevsky Vocal and Dance Ensemble (right) rehearse side by side at the Grand Philharmonic Concert Hall in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photos courtesy of Medina High School Symphony Orchestra)

The trip cost roughly $2,600 a person for the St. Petersburg portion of the trip and an extra $500 for the Moscow part, said Keith Holliday, who teaches orchestra at the high school and was the leader and organizer of the trip.

Twenty-two adults, teachers and parents, went along to chaperone, Holliday said, adding there was a fundraising committee of about 15 parents that met several times the year prior to raise money for the trip.

Bronson said the Medina musicians performed one solo concert and then a second concert with the Russian youth orchestra.

The concerts were part of an International Music Festival called “Meetings on the Neva River,” which was sponsored by the International Fine Arts Institute in conjunction with the Russian consulate, Holliday said in a presentation of the trip to the Medina City Schools Board of Education. He added this trip was an official invitation from the Russian government and the orchestra was assigned by the Russian agency to those two venues based on live concert “audition” recordings of past performances.

“The solo concert was fun because it was just us and all about us and the audience kept asking for encores,” Bronson said, adding she enjoyed the second concert as well because they developed a good relationship with the Russians and had fun collaborating with them.

Though the language barrier posed a problem occasionally, Bronson said for the most part, many of the students they worked with spoke English, even if only a little, and they also had a translator at the rehearsals.

Senior Tom Bonezzi, who plays the violin, said it was his first time abroad and wasn’t sure what to expect.

“There were a lot of furry hats there,” he said with a laugh, adding otherwise the weather was very similar to Ohio’s and some of the other common assumptions about Russia, such as always being real cold and snowy, didn’t hold true.

“They’re so fashion forward over there,” said senior Ailene Dargan, who plays the cello. “You have the image of the older women with the babushkas and it was not like that at all. They wear boots and skinny jeans.”

Bonezzi said he was definitely nervous about whether they’d reach the level the audience was expecting.

“But we did,” he said confidently. “We were just really blown away how much they cared for it.”

Dargan said the audience even clapped in rhythm when they were finished playing, a Russian custom, which Dargan said they only do if they really, really enjoyed it.

She added usually they have a hard enough time filling the center section of their own auditorium, often having to drag their parents and family to come.

“So having an overflowing house full of people that had such a passion for music and to hear it played, it was just overwhelming to say the least,” she said.

Among seeing elaborate palaces, cathedrals and intricate artwork, including two Leonardo da Vinci originals, the students also went to a Russian folk show, where a male quartet sang Russian folk songs and several musicians, singers and dancers performed traditional dances and songs.

Dargan recalled one Russian woman at the first concert approached her after and gave her the scarf from around her neck, and another woman, who saw them play both concerts gave Dargan a porcelain teacup and saucer after the show.

“It was awesome, I didn’t know how to respond,” Dargan said, adding this was like their version of flowers.

The only bump in the trip was the exhausting layovers getting from the U.S. to Russia and working with Russian customs to get all the string instruments to Russia.

“Getting 80 people to another country is not particularly easy,” Bonezzi said. “Getting string instruments over there with Russian customs was really hard.”

Holliday added: “Once we got there, it was smooth sailing, but there were a few glitches along the way.”

However, despite some of the struggles here and there, including jet lag, all three students agreed what they took home from the trip was priceless.

“Music is such an international language — how it brings you together, just by sitting next to each other and playing the same notes,” Bronson said.

Bonezzi added: “You appreciate the culture and their history so much more and you also appreciate your family and your home.”

Dargan said when she first got back, it felt surreal, as if she shouldn’t be in school and was still mentally in Russia.

“I just wanted to stay there forever, just bring people from here, there and stay,” she said.

Holliday added: “It was a big success, the concerts were unbelievable. To have this type of opportunity for this orchestra is unheard of. The kids were great and the sightseeing experiences and cultural interaction was great … a good combination.”

Shofar may be reached at 330-721-4044 or cshofar@ohio.net.