On a Tuesday night in early March, strains of Mozart drift through the Target wing of Memorial City Mall. It’s beautiful and dramatic and polished and being performed by the 55 middle and high school students that make up Virtuosi of Houston.
Virtuosi of Houston is a youth chamber orchestra comprised of members from over 32 middle and high schools across 12 school districts throughout the Greater Houston area. Chamber orchestras are designed to be small and selective, 40-60 musicians, lending themselves to play a repertoire of classics from composers like Mozart, Haydn and Schubert.
Founded in 1996 by Andrzej Grabiec and Franz Anton Krager, the orchestra started with just 20 students and a vision of providing a place where young musicians could find challenge and opportunity to grow and develop their talents.
Maestro Krager notes, “We designed the program for the excelled high school and middle school musician. There are no stragglers in this group; they all play at an accelerated level.” Due to the small nature of a chamber orchestra, every instrument is heard and every musician must command their music well or the audience will hear the missed notes.
The two co-founders and artistic co-directors are both professors at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. Andrzej Grabiec is Professor of Violin and Anton Krager is Professor of Conducting, Director of Orchestras, and Chair of the Conducting Department.
Together, the two pour into and shape the music and the musicians that make up Virtuosi. During rehearsals, the students stop and start a piece at one maestro’s direction while the other works in the body of the orchestra advising, correcting, listening. When the maestro discusses a piece with the students, he doesn’t just tell them which note to play and how, he builds a foundation for thought, appreciation and discernment about music, composers and performance.
The music starts and stops with the conductor’s baton, peppered with comments like, “When you’re playing Mozart, you have to have energy!”, “I could use some more breath in the first two whole notes.",“The sound of this many people playing controlled, you can’t beat it.”
The students rehearse twice a week for five weeks leading up to the concert. Rehearsals are open to the public and an absolute delight to watch. The rehearsal schedule is posted online.
Zarine Boyce has been pro bono President and CEO of Virtuosi since 2000. Over the past 16 years, she has witnessed the talent come through each season and notes that it’s more than just solid technique, “When these young children play, they’re playing because they love it; they’re playing because they care.” Virtuosi has been in its present location in Memorial City Mall for the last 11 years. Boyce states, “We are very grateful to the management of Memorial City Mall and to MetroNational for providing us this space.”
Each year, around 200 students audition for Grabiec and Krager, including all current members auditioning to retain their positions. The only restrictions on acceptance are talent. There is tuition for the season associated with joining the orchestra, but funds have always been made available to cover any cost for students needing financial assistance.
Throughout each season, Virtuosi performs four to six full chamber orchestras. This year, as a part of the new Virtuosi Around the Globe program, 38 students went to England over spring break where they performed a concert at Chichester Cathedral, side-by-side with the University of Chichester Music School musicians.
Virtuosi has numerous programs that go beyond the scope of chamber performances. The small ensembles perform at over 80 small events each year, where students play events hosted by private and corporate partners. About 50% of the small ensemble performances are pro bono, and community organizations like Texas Children’s Hospital and the Senior Citizen homes, benefit from the performances. Boyce notes that many are opportunities within the community where classical music wouldn’t normally be heard. A small ensemble can be one performer to fourteen, whatever the host requests.
Virtuosi hosts workshops and master classes. There is also a concerto competition held early each year where each of five winners from string and wind instruments receives prize money to enhance their music career at a total of $10,250.00.
Starting in 2017, Virtuosi began its Touch of Music program where trios and quartets go into HISD schools to perform and share an instrument petting zoo. They present some history on the music played and provided complementary tickets to students for their March concert.
Also new this year is the Jazz Orchestra, an ensemble led by Noe Marmolejo, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Ensembles, Moores School of Music. And in January, 13 members went to Washington D.C., underwritten by a board member, to play at several inauguration events hosted for Texas politicians, senators and congressmen (see picture above).
All these experiences serve to strengthen, build and fine-tune both the musician and the student. Violinist, Leilani Lawson notes, “Virtuosi has taught me to be a better musician but also a better person, to be surrounded by all these amazing people.”
Other students echoed the same sentiments: that the motivation, challenges, friendships and lessons they have learned as a part of Virtuosi are something they could get nowhere else. They are kids who are passionate about music and have found a community among others who understand that passion, who are driven to master their instrument, who are respected and treated as professionals and in turn perform like professionals.
Mrs. Boyce points out that “Ninety-five percent pursue a career in music; 100% go to college.” Now in its 21st year, Virtuosi alumni are found playing with the National Orchestra in Washington D.C., as first cello of the Berlin Opera Orchestra, as principal flautist of the Luxembourg Chamber Orchestra, and that is to name just a few. Others are professors and teachers, private musicians and ensemble players.
Isabel Efird, mother of violinist Jordan, says “They’re kids, they cut up. But put an instrument in their hands and they’re professionals. Then they go back to being kids again.”
For more information on Virtuosi and rehearsal and concert schedules visit http://virtuosiofhouston.org/.