Juneau Student Symphony (JSS) Music Director Guo Hua Xia is prepared to lead the multiple musical groups participating in JSS’s Spring Concert with the same passion he’s led the charge for the continued development of local musical enrichment.
The Spring Concert includes JSS, the String Ensemble, Mini-Fiddlers, and Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School (DMHS) Orchestra. It was Xia who coordinated all the groups’ involvement in the Spring Concert.
Although originally from Shang Hai, China, Xia attended school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and graduated with a degree in music. One of his instructors encouraged him to move to Juneau due to its need for more teachers well-versed in string instruments. Xia moved to Juneau where he became involved with the Juneau Symphony. Throughout the 30 years since then, Xia has been a dominant and driving force in creating the dynamic and inclusive musical community Juneau currently experiences.
“Mr. Xia is super humble so you’d never hear this from him, but he is this incredible gift to the community who has created a way for elementary age students all the way up to the retired Juneauite to be a part of a community ensemble,” Loralie (Lorrie) Heagy the Director for the Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM) Program said. Heagy credits Xia as playing a key role in the genesis and continued success of JAMM, a in-school program that provides 90 minutes a day of violin instruction for participating kindergarten and first grade classes. JAMM also offers an after-school program that explores a wider range of instruments as well as different areas of music for grades two through five.
Xia donates part of his Sundays to be the conductor for the members of another of Heagy’s groups – The Juneau String Ensemble. The Ensemble is now in its second year and was created in a response to the fact that the oldest JAMM kids moving into the middle school level needed an after school program that allowed them to sign up for continued musical training. The Ensemble closes the gap for those students who have participated in the JAMM program but are not yet prepared to move into the Juneau Student Symphony. This group has allowed for a dynamic mix of students that Heagy notes, “wouldn’t otherwise associate with each other” giving way to a “wonderfully” diverse group that has found a connection through music.
Xia also instructs the Mini-Fiddlers, a group derived from his private students and created for the purpose of giving those students the opportunity to learn what it’s like to play in a group. This year the solely violin playing group is made up of 13 students ranging from ages six to 11. They’ve performed in multiple Alaska Folk Festivals as well as played at the Governor’s Mansion for the Open House in December. The crew of young artists take the time out to perform for the residents of both the Pioneer Home and Wildflower Court.
“The kids practice really hard,” Vania Kim said, who is one of the organizers for the Mini-Fiddlers as well as parent to participating child Elizabeth. “But the music is always super fun for them. We get their input on what songs they want to play which gives them ownership for what they’re doing and promotes independence… It’s just joy all around. Joy for them and joy for the community.”
The Mini-Fiddlers will be traveling to Skagway at the end of May to perform in a free outdoor mini concert.
With the help and encouragement of Juneau Symphony’s Music Director Troy Quinn, Xia accepted the position as JSS’s Music Director two years ago. Although Xia didn’t feel comfortable taking the role as Music Director due to English being his second language, his confidence has grown with the mentoring of Quinn and continued support of Heagy. Both the String Ensemble and the JSS are under the wing of the Juneau Symphony.
Xia commented that it’s difficult to keep good musician’s in Juneau because of its small population, but that doesn’t stop him from pouring his energy into every student that crosses his path.
“I like it here,” Xia said. “It’s so special… My student family is like my family. I like the people in Juneau. I’ll stay here for a long time.”
Xia’s drive and commitment to the music within the community has assisted in making it so that everyone, no matter their position in life, has the opportunity to reach the heights of their musical ability.
Alexander Yu is one of those in the community who has unquestionably benefited within Xia’s haven of musical instruction.
Yu was four years old when he picked up the violin and found himself under the tutelage of Xia. He’s worked his way up and now is a 14-year-old participant in JSS with dreams of one day performing alongside his instructor Xia in the Juneau Symphony. Xia said this dream may not be that far off. In 2017, Yu won the Juneau Symphony Youth Solo Competition and will show off his acquired skills at the Spring Concert by playing the first movement solo of Violin Concerto in G minor by Bruch.
“He loves playing in orchestra,” Mae Yu, Alexander’s mother said. “He’s worked really hard to keep the position he has with the group and practices at least one hour everyday.”
Joining the ranks of the Spring Concert for Monday night will be Michael Bucy’s Orchestra class from DHMS, adding 35 more bodies to the ranks of that night’s instrumentalists. JSS and the String Ensemble will also be present, adding up to a total of nearly 100 musicians who will have their sound fill the DHMS gymnasium.
That evening there will be classic orchestral favorites such as the String Ensembles performance of Sinfonia in G by Stamitz. All orchestras present that night will together present to the audience “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven as well as “Gallop” (Can-Can) by Offenbach.
The Mini-Fiddlers will perform on Saturday night in absence of the DHMS Orchestra and will play six fiddler songs including the “Boogie Woogie” as well as songs from the Star Wars series “The Pink Panther” and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Many of the same songs will be performed by JSS both evenings such as Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony No. 6, the concert favorite for long-time JSS musician Denali Wentz.
“Just look at how much music there is to play!” Wentz said as he excitedly displayed the sheet music for the song before one of the recent JSS rehearsals.
JSS member Olivia Gardener’s favorite, Overture from Bizet’s opera “Carmen” will also be played during both concert nights.
“It just sounds really cool,” 15-year-old Gardener said. “I also really like the concerto I’m working on; it’s by Mozart, Concerto Number 4 in D Major. There’s so much technique that goes into (JSS). We’re learning intonation and the dynamics of playing in a group. I do really like being a part of the Symphony because I like how it sounds to play with other people.”
Kristin Garot the principal for Yaakoosge Daakahidi High School plays with the Juneau Symphony but also helps fill in for JSS.
“I’m a coach to our section in the student symphony,” Garot said. “It’s nice to have a mix of more experienced players and newer players.”
The Saturday night concert will be on May 12 at 7 p.m. in the Thunder Mountain High School Auditorium and the Monday concert will be May 14 at 7 p.m. at DHMS.
The Spring Concert highlights each group by allowing them to perform individually, but whose shared pieces exist in an effort to support and inspire musical growth for its younger players.
Xia hopes that the evident difference in age and skill level at this concert will allow those in the audience to take a look at where they are at in their own musical journey and maybe even imagine the possibility of seeing themselves in an orchestra and on a stage of their own one day.
• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer living in Juneau.