Cerys Hudson, 16, was given an unfamiliar borrowed cello when she got to New York City to play the biggest concert of her life, and it didn’t sooth her nerves when a warm-up concert at a park featured the sounds of helicopters overhead, boats in the water nearby and the instrument going out of tune in the heat.
“Obviously I was nervous,” Hudson said. “I’d only practiced with it a couple of times. But once I was up on stage I was like ’I’m standing on the same stage as Yo-Yo Ma and this is amazing.’ It was the greatest experience of my life playing the cello.”
Aurora Strings, part of the Juneau String Ensembles program, performed the Carnegie Hall concert in June of last year as part of the four-day Sounds of Summer International Music Festival. The ensemble still featuring many of the same musicians, along with the younger Ursa Major ensemble, are scheduled to perform a concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church as a tribute to the sponsors of the New York trip.
The Juneau ensemble was among four student groups nationwide selected to perform during the festival. Cerys’ mother, Kate, chair of the Juneau String Ensembles board, said the selection occurred after a recording of a Christmas performance at the church in 2020 was submitted to the festival.
The students rehearsed weekly for 18 months for what everyone interviewed called the most challenging program they have performed, with works ranging from passages of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3” to Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Copeland’s “Hoe Down.” Playing under the lights of Carnegie Hall just made the moment that much bigger.
“I was just kind of blown away,” Elizabeth Djajalie, 16, a violinist. “Everything was just kind of golden because it was in that spotlight.”
There was also agreement among many of the students about the first and most noticeable difference compared to performing locally.
“The acoustics were amazing,” said Lua Mangaccat, 14, who said she started playing the viola at age 4 after watching people playing them at the Alaska Folk Festival.
The students were supposed to perform the Carnegie Hall concert in 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the appearance for a year, the elder Hudson said. As a result a few seniors that graduated and other pandemic-related issues meant only 20 local students were available, while a minimum ensemble of 25 was necessary.
“We kind of borrowed some musicians,” she said, noting three students from Anchorage and one from Homer who were known to music director/conductor Guo Hua Xia joined the entourage, which was met by one additional student performer in New York when they arrived.
Xia, who’s been teaching music to Juneau students for the past 25 years, said the 18 months Aurora Strings had to rehearse their program due to the pandemic delay is the longest for any show he’s been involved with. But having only limited encounters with the out-of-town players was a concern coming to New York, even though he tried to work extensively with them remotely via Zoom and similar means.
“I worked very individually with them, telling them what dynamics, what bowing, and so when they got there they all came together,” he said.
The Alaska students, many of them accompanied by parents, had plenty of time to explore New York City. Cerys said she saw “Hamilton” in addition to plenty of less-highbrow entertainment
“We kind of stayed up until 3 or 4 every night, walking around, getting food,” she said. But it didn’t affect the concert since “we were so amped up by the nerves we weren’t really tired.”
But first came the “warm-up” concert at Brooklyn Bridge Park the day before the main event, featuring a come-and-go crowd and the less-than-ideal acoustics.
“There was like helicopters and boats, so that wasn’t the best,” Cerys said. Also, it was sunny and the heat was hard to take as an Alaskan, not to mention “the cellos were going out of tune.”
Xia said the park performance was a useful warm-up in a casual setting.
“For me it was a good opportunity that they were playing together, because for me every opportunity to play together is important for me,” he said.
Still, some students were still feeling the heat the following day in the climate-controlled confines of Carnegie Hall.
“My son Tobin said his hands were sweating,” said Minta Montalbo, a Juneau String Ensembles board member who helped organize and participate in the trip.
But Kate Hudson said she couldn’t perceive her daughter’s nervousness, or that of any other students, once the performance began.
”I don’t think that for us sitting in the audience, you couldn’t tell they were nervous,” she said. The setting literally helped amplify their performance since “when you heard the recording you could really hear the parts so well.”
Cerys, who said the recording is distinctive enough to hear her cello passages, noted that despite the nearly non-stop pace leading up to the concert there’s wasn’t an energy letdown afterward.
“We kind of did an all-nighter,” she said, including the sugar infusion of a 3 a.m. doughnut run.
Not everyone has quite that endurance. Montalbo, noting the evening’s program ended at about 11 p.m., stated that after walking a few blocks back to the hotel that “some families went to Times Square for the midnight light show, others went to bed.”
Funding for the trip included a grant from city, support from sponsors including Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church, and fundraising efforts by the students. Saturday’s concert paying tribute to the sponsors will feature a short program by Ursa Major followed by a longer one by Aurora Strings, with Franz Felkl as a guest solo violinist. Compositions will include Classical music from the likes of Mozart, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky, as well as modern works from soundtracks including Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean movies.