Student Voices: Recalling a once-in-a-lifetime performance at Carnegie Hall

Courtesy of Carnegie Hall
Homestead High School student Melody Chen performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City with her school’s symphony orchestra.

When I pass by the school office, it’s hard to miss the huge photo of the Homestead High School Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall four years ago. Despite it being proof of what high school music ensembles could do, the concert hall seemed out of reach to me.

Yet there I was last month in New York City performing in one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world. I joined other members of the Homestead High School Symphony Orchestra, which teamed with the Cupertino High School String Orchestra to participate in the World Projects’ New York “Sounds of Summer” festival at Carnegie Hall.

Seeing the concert hall within the four corners of the picture frame was one thing, but actually stepping into the frame and performing on the stage was another thing.

First impressions

It was the late afternoon of June 11 when we poured into the lobby of the Park Central Hotel, dressed in black with instruments in hand. Weathered by late-night TV socials with my friends, back-to-back sightseeing and the dwindling hours of sleep I had since arriving in the city three days earlier, I was beyond exhausted. Knowing that the once-in-a-lifetime performance was hours away kept me from nodding off.

Diagonally across the street from our hotel stands the red-bronze building. With Renaissance-style bricks and slanted arches, Carnegie Hall seems to exist in a different era, yet it’s just blocks away from the bustling city life of Times Square.

As we entered through the back door of the hall, I thought to myself: This is it. Moments later, I would be tracing the shadows of famous musicians across the world: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and even the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (who conducted during the opening night of Carnegie Hall in 1891).

After we tuned our instruments in the warm-up room, we headed out and waited for an elevator so big that it could fit approximately 20 musicians at once. The exit out led to a sitting room where encased posters of music ensembles like the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic were plastered on the wall.

We filed out to the backstage area. The line began to move forward, and as I sneaked a glance of the stage from the back, my eyes were treated to a blur of gold and red.

The red-gold haze from the stage lights shifted into focus as I planted my foot on the hard polished wood of the stage. The golden engravings down the wall snaked to the ceiling. My head bobbed from the vastness of the stage – a cathedral of music.

Everyone around me was swiveling on their toes, hoping to soak in every moment in the historic hall.

Concert experience

After grabbing dinner at a nearby deli with several peers, we listened to the College Park High School Choir from Pleasant Hill before heading backstage. We were scheduled to perform between groups from Puerto Rico and Germany.

Shortly, this performance would be the culmination of the hours of drilling notes and perfecting rhythm since last summer. Even the souvenir shop I went to early that day, Big Apple Souvenirs & Gift, offered me a 10 percent discount just for performing at Carnegie Hall.

The sound of our shuffling feet reverberated in the hall as we filled in the seats of the orchestra. Following a brief introduction of our orchestra and the tuning note “A,” the soft, transparent note of “Mirna” – a premiere of Jaka Jerina’s winning composition – made its ascent in a small village near a river. The story was told from various orators (or instruments). Just when the piece was about to end, a simultaneous note sounded in the hall in Tchaikovksy’s fourth movement of Symphony No. 4. The thunderous timpani, lightning clashes of the cymbals, the rolling strings and the stately winds and brass contributed to the regal pomp, magnified by the echoing walls of Carnegie Hall. The swing dance style of the clarinet solo of Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2 trailed shortly as it lurched into a colorful and lively ballroom show.

I will never forget how fast the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation. The stage seemed to be confused about where to prescribe the echo, as the applause thundered from every corner of the hall. I was momentarily dazed: It is easy to be immersed in music, but it is hard to come out of it.

Walking away from Carnegie Hall was such a hard thing to do; my memories in New York jogged through my mind. From strolling past “Good Morning America” and Central Park to witnessing the aftermath of a helicopter crash in midtown Manhattan just two blocks away from my hotel, I have never felt so close to my peers as I did on this trip.

Melody Chen is a rising senior at Homestead High and Town Crier intern who plays the viola.

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