Ridgefield High School musicians offer the beauty of Dvorak

Ten Ridgefield High School musicians played on the online Dvorak largo. Top row, from left, are Ollie Heimbauer and Coleman Hoffner on violins, Michael Kovacs on viola, and Makena Davi on bass. Middle row, at left, is Celine Lee on violin, then Amy Grove on viola. At bottom, from left, are Miles Stoddart and Jeannette Kim on violins, then Alexandra Dillulio and Reed Koh on cello.

Ten Ridgefield High School musicians played on the online Dvorak largo. Top row, from left, are Ollie Heimbauer and Coleman Hoffner on violins, Michael Kovacs on viola, and Makena Davi on bass. Middle row, at left, is Celine Lee on violin, then Amy Grove on viola. At bottom, from left, are Miles Stoddart and Jeannette Kim on violins, then Alexandra Dillulio and Reed Koh on cello.

Contributed phtoo / Ridgefield High School Symphonic Orchestra

Solemn and serene, infinitely sad, the strings lilt and quaver, cherishing long sorrowful notes behind a haunting melody as four violins, three violas, two cellos, and a bass move with practiced grace through the largo movement of Antonin Dvorak’s Ninth “New World” Symphony.

“We miss each other, yet still we find a way to make music. May that always be the case,” says an on-screen message. “And in our absence, we offer this to our community to bring hope, peace and a sense of unity.”

The music and the message come from 10 members of the Ridgefield High School’s symphonic orchestra, who joined in the performance.

When the swell of the music subsides, another message appears on screen.

“The sun will shine again, Ridgefield,” it says. “Thank you for watching.”

“The transition from hearing and making music every day to not being exposed to music at all in quarantine was drastic,” said Miles Stoddart, one of the four RHS violinists to play in the piece.

More Information

A students' musical offering is available as a virtual performance that may be found on the RHS Music Department's Facebook page, or on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laMWTOvs_RU.

“I never fully realized until now, but going to orchestra class every day in school really had an important impact on my day-to-day life,” he said. “Orchestra was a nice refresher for my brain, taking my mind away from whatever stress my day had for me, and after class every day I would find myself with the tune of whatever piece we worked on stuck in my head.

“Once school stopped, the lack of constant music in my life, that had become natural, was certainly noticeable.”

“I really enjoyed doing this project,” said Alexandra Dillulio, who played cello, “because although we could not play together in person, it was really great to see how all of our parts came together in the end.

“It was definitely difficult not being able to connect in person with each other,” she said, “but seeing the finished product come out so well made it worth it.”

The virtual performance was organized by Michael McNamara, the RHS orchestra director for the last eight years, after six years as middle school orchestra director.

“The piece we played was an arrangement I made of the second movement from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. It is a beautiful and moving piece, and I thought indicative of the times we are going through,” McNamara said.

“It is sad, as we all are,” he said. “But at the same time, there are upsides. People are generally being kinder to one another, checking in on one another, and making more of a point to make human connection.”

The largo — or slow movement — from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, is sometimes called “Going Home” because part of the melody was set to words in a song of that name by one of Dvorak’s students, William Ames Fisher. In the song, the “home” that the singer is going to can easily be read as the afterlife, where lost family and friends are waiting for someone who is near death.

Parts, assembled

Similar to other online group musical performances that have been put together during the pandemic, the piece was made in parts and then assembled into a whole.

“The kids have to record individually; they aren’t playing together at the same time,” McNamara said.

“The method we used was to put a recording of a professional orchestra in the background (in this case, the N.Y. Philharmonic). They would play their part along with it while listening to it in headphones,” he said.

“Conductors are more important than most people think, too; they can really help to shape the sound, make for precise starts and stops, and bring out a more artistic performance. I was unable to give them that in this format,” McNamara said.

“As good as they sounded, they would have sounded much better with rehearsals, actually playing together, and a conductor.”

Ten RHS students played in the piece. There were: four violins, played by seniors Jeannette Kim, Miles Stoddart and Celine Lee, and sophomore Ollie Heimbauer; three violas played by senior Amy Grove, junior Michael Kovacs, and sophomore Coleman Hoffner; two cellos by junior Alexandra Dillulio and sophomore Reed Koh; and junior Makena Davi played the bass.

Since the pandemic began, Miles Stoddart said, he and other RHS orchestra students had been doing some things together online.

“We would hold online meetings with our section twice a week to go over our parts, which was a great start to getting music back into our lives, but it wasn’t nearly the same,” he said.

“As a result of this, I definitely found myself wanting to play more, which was great. I was compelled to practice just for the joy of playing, which is something that you don’t really feel all the time as a musician.

“When I heard about playing together again with the Dvorak, I was overjoyed. I was afraid at first that it wouldn’t go too smoothly, because I had never done anything like this before, but it ended up being a really special experience,” he said.

“We used headphones to listen and play along with a professional recording, which surprisingly felt just like being with an actual orchestra. One of the most important aspects of orchestral playing is listening to the parts being played around you, and using headphones to do this made me feel like I was right back on stage with everyone.”

Practice, practice

The 10 students in the performance are among about 50 strings players in Ridgefield High School’s two orchestras, which involve a total of about 140 students, according to McNamara.

Among them are some pretty serious and dedicated musicians.

“Before schools closed I only practiced three or four hours a day,” Alexandra Dillulio said, “but now I have been practicing five or six hours a day with all the free time I have, so quarantine has been really helpful for me.”

Miles Stoddart said he isn’t practicing more these days, but with more feeling.

“My practicing is much more joyful and passionate,” he said. “Music can be stressful at times during the year, but with the shut-down I just play because I love to play. It has been extremely relaxing and peaceful.”

McNamara said the idea for the virtual performance came by seeing others that have been done during the pandemic— some of them ”very inspiring,” he said.

“I was slow to make it happen, though, as I did not possess the video and audio editing skills to take something like that on,” he said. “But I was able to learn through a combination of past experience and some help from colleagues and friends, the biggest help being from a band director I have never met, in a Facebook group for music teachers.”

McNamara also got a tutorial from Dr. Wes DeSantis, the Ridgefield Public Schools’ coordinator for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, on how to use Final Cut Pro — “the program used to create the squares on the video,” he said.

“That 20 minutes he gave me saved me hours of having to figure it out for myself,” McNamara said.

Goin’ home

The Dvorak wasn’t a piece that the students had been working on before regular classes ended, McNamara said, but it was something he felt was had an appropriate mood.

And the effort seems to have worked out well — better than he’d imagined.

“Believe it or not, this was a trial run,” he said. “Before we began online learning, we were uncertain if and when we would be returning to school. The students had individual weekly assignments for our planned spring concert which they prepared individually by video, using exemplar recordings and virtual sectional rehearsals led by their section leaders.

“While preparing for the spring concert, I asked some of our leading players to participate, with the intention of going public. Now that the spring concert is definitely not happening, we will be attempting one with the whole orchestra for the remainder of school.”

Students’ hopes

The students who discussed the effort with The Press said they were hopeful that their performance would reach the hearts of people in town.

“I hope that people are able to connect to our video and our emotions because that’s the reason we make music after all,” said Alexandra Dillulio. “I hope that people feel comfort and reassurance because of our video.”

“My wish is that people listening to this feel hope for the future,” said Miles Stoddart. “A few kids from the high school orchestra were able to come together and make something beautiful during this really tough time, so I hope that people see this and know that everyone is in it together and that everything will be okay.”

“The best part about kids is that they are willing to take the risks, too, and with their youthful spirit they’ll follow you anywhere. They’re fearless,” McNamara said. “All they need is someone to believe in them, and they will always rise to the occasion.”