RHS music program concludes year on a high note (REVIEW)

Ridgefield High School’s instrumental spring concert held last month under the direction of Michael McNamara included performances by the school’s symphonic orchestra, chamber orchestra, jazz band, concert band and a percussion ensemble.

The evening started out with a delightful contemporary percussion piece called “Pipe Dream” which incorporated numerous drums, bells, vibraphone and marimba. The chamber orchestra followed, playing Brahms Suite with polished intensity. Then the jazz band took the stage and mixed things up with selections that included Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Bertolt Brecht. The improvisation on Jimmy Herring’s “Scapegoat Blues” featured a “playoff” between two longtime friends: guitarist Jason Bangser and bassist Josh Gardos. These seniors could easily be first round draft picks if jazz had its own national league. The final piece, Mack the Knife, brought the house down with Lindsay Spallone singing scat a la Ella Fitzgerald.

After a brief intermission the concert band held its own with several selections, the highlight of which was First Suite in E flat by Gustav Holst.

Then came the symphonic orchestra. There were so many students that it took extra time to fit everyone on stage. The joy in their playing radiated from the stage, including a stirring solo by first chair violinist and concertmaster Alice Townsend in Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. The group’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, movements IV and V was exceptional, especially given the piece’s level of difficulty. The students performed the same program at a Fantastic Festivals adjudication competition a few days before and took home a coveted Platinum Prize. The parents of music students are understandably proud: “The RHS concerts continue to blow me away; the talent and skill shown under the leadership of Mr. McNamara is outstanding,” said Michele Williams, a senior parent.

Another music parent, Lauri A. Stein-Jones agreed.

“The performances I have heard over the past two years have been nothing short of amazing,” she said. She compared the students to “a professional orchestra concert in a major metropolis.”  

The RHS music program has grown from 44 students six years ago to 107 musicians next year. The orchestra will stand at 98 strings and 30 wind instruments, up from 55. With that growth in mind, the high school is changing the music program’s infrastructure.

A separate band instructor has been added next year and there will be a tiered music program with wind ensemble and symphonic orchestra becoming audition only ensembles, while concert band and concert orchestra will not require auditions. McNamara will continue to instruct the string and percussion students and oversee the music student leadership.

As he puts it: “I couldn’t be happier with the direction our program is moving in.”