Atlanta Symphony Orchestra immerses students in opera


Courtesy of Kevin Hill

After the Symphony Orchestra showing, Sir Runnicles shared words of wisdom and gratitude with participating Midtown choral students backstage. Getting to work with people at the ASO has exposed the students to professional experiences, something not many students have access to.

Sierra Pape

Imagine being a teenager with limited choral experience looking out at a cascading audience of almost 1,500 awaiting the sound of your voice. This is the perspective of each Midtown High School participant in the recent December Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performances that featured Midtown High students.

For nearly a decade, Midtown choral students have had the opportunity to perform with the world-renowned artists in Atlanta Symphony Concert Hall, only ten blocks away from the school grounds. After a year of pandemic-imposed absence of the arts, this year’s adaptation of the German opera “Hansel and Gretel” allowed for a distinguished outside-of-school moment. 

As a cornerstone for musical excellence in the Southeast, the ASO opts to consistently engage with musically-inclined youth in Atlanta. With its proximity and reputable program, Midtown High School was an easy choice for ensemble opportunities. In 2011, the partnership was first sparked and students performed in the “Holiday Pops Concert.”

One of the organizers contacted us about a joint concert, which works out well because of our program and close vicinity,” Kevin Hill, Midtown’s choral director, said. 

Since then, Midtown High School has been invited back multiple times and has been involved in more integral roles such as their 2017 and 2018 “Harry Potter” spectacles and 2019 “Home Alone” main winter concert. 

Senior Madeline Moye said, “I’ve done it every single year it was offered. Every performance is magical and I get chills at the end. There just is something about classical music that is beautiful and is captured best live in a big group.”

Performing along with professional artists and in front of a large body creates a new, elevated bar for students. The conductor for “Hansel and Gretel” this year was Sir Donald Runnicles, a world-renowned conductor who has led as the General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Music Director of the Grand Teton Music Festival, as well as Principal Guest Conductor of the ASO. He was knighted at the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours. 

“The goal as a teacher is to constantly be raising the bar of excellence and this is the perfect new experience to allow for growth and inspiration,” Hill said. “To me, anytime that you get to hang out with amazing musicians you become a better musician. And so everybody kind of upped their game a little bit.” 

For students who want to pursue a further education and career in the arts, some root their passion in these annual endeavors which show them professional processes and etiquette. 

“I think, through the past years, subconsciously it helped me grow my love for [classical music].” Nalani Adams, a junior at Midtown, said. “It reminds you why you enjoy music and is the perfect spark for motivation.”

Personal connection with the main opera singers allowed for inspiration. The chosen small group backstage had a one-on-one interaction with Jacquelyn Stucker, who played the main role of Gretel.

“She came up to us and described how she was once in our shoes and got promoted up the ladder.” Adams said. “It made me feel like I was on the right path and I could have a future in this type of performance.”

Additionally, with vocally-demanding music, it encourages students to elevate their own personal qualities. “Hansel and Gretel” as an opera presented new challenges regarding range of notes.

“This was the first time I really used operatic singing techniques in chorus, despite having a rich solo interest over quarantine.” said Moye. 

The ASO has multiple youth programs that combine to create a driven, skilled choir. At an elementary school that feeds into Midtown, Springdale Park Elementary, choral teacher Brianne Turgeon, who sings in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus herself, has made connections to create an opportunity for little kids to foster a love for classical arrangements.

My work in preparing kids to be performers, listeners, supporters, and innovators is everything to me. Our students love attending concerts at the ASO and learning about important music and getting to know the humans who bring the music to us in our hometown.” Turgeon said. “My participation with the ASO Chorus feeds all that I do as a teacher, a singer and more.”

This is also a incentive for middle schoolers to join the Chorus pathway as they enter high school. It creates an enriching experience that will carry them outside the classroom.

It became a thing that folks realized that became part of the culture, I guess,” Hill said. “Older kids talked about how fun it was and how big a deal it was, and so that kind of encouraged the next ones. That was a big draw for middle school kids when you tell them that hey, when you get to high school, you may be able to do these large concerts.”

With pieces like “Hansel and Gretel” that are less compelling to the young generation this brings a group of people into the show that maybe would not have heard the music otherwise. 

“It is great for everyone involved.” Said ASO Choral Administrator Jeff Baxter. “Bringing new audiences and new voices creates a wonderful collaboration” 

Following suit, both Midtown High School and ASO administrators believe that the link between the programs will continue for years to come.

“Sir Donald Runnicles even said yesterday after the performance as a closing that we’ll do it again sometime,” Hill said. “With musicians it’s a network, and I think a connection has really been made here.”

With the double benefit of education plus fresh voices, this collaboration inspires students throughout the years of their choral schooling to pursue further interest in the aging genre of classical and operatic art forms.

“The ASO has been part of our cultural scene in Atlanta for 76 years,” Turgeon said. “Having this fantastic orchestra matters to our city, to our culture, and most importantly, to the future for our children.”