Several Medfield Strings Orchestra members include (left to right) Yaliani Villegas, Zoe Whelan, Marin Toohey, Megan Coleman, Kristie Nealon, and Nikki Corbett. Photos by Geena Matuson.
By Geena Matuson
Hometown Weekly Staff
For the first time in its history, Berklee World Strings performed a side-by-side concert with Medfield Strings Orchestra on Wednesday evening. This was, in fact, the first time Berklee World Strings had performed side-by-side with any middle or high school program, and it was truly sensational. Berklee World Strings is a select group of Berklee College of Music students devoted to the art of ensemble playing and the development of new music that features improvisation and world rhythms, conducted by four-time Grammy Award winner Eugene Friesen, a cellist and professor at Berklee.
This collaboration was organized by the Medfield Music Association (MMA) with Co-President Chris McCue-Potts, the Cultural Alliance of Medfield (MCA), and Brenna Evans, Director of Strings at Medfield Schools grades 4-12. The first of its kind, this venture was the initial coordination work of Evans, who had reached out to the Berklee program after learning of their work. A native to Buffalo, New York, Evans majored in Music Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and, after several years with another district, has happily been part of the Medfield community for four years now. Truly interested in interactive learning and engaging students in music, Evans is always thinking of new and innovative ideas to bridge the gap between theory and practice.
“I had heard about Berklee World Strings and thought it was a great idea. Last spring, when I was thinking about programs and groups to bring to the school, I immediately thought of [this group],” Evans explained.
The Director of Strings also contacted the group’s conductor, Eugene Friesen, and the idea was set into action. To support this event, Brenna Evans also received a $2,000 grant from the Medfield Cultural Council (MCC), a program supported in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.
With over 80 middle school students and more than 50 high school students, a total of 138 young musicians performed alongside Berklee World Strings in various ensembles throughout the evening. Conductor Eugene Friesen praised the event and those who took part when asked about his feelings on the Medfield Strings program.
“It’s an extraordinary and vibrant community of incredible talent. It feels like we adopted them and they adopted us into this community,” said Friesen.
As Berklee String Ensemble and Medfield’s sixth grade orchestra took their seats on stage, Evans introduced the ensemble and explained the many new techniques explored and practiced by the middle school orchestra, such as ‘chopping,’ a technique initially characterized as “dropping the bow vertically onto the strings to make a crunchy, percussive noise, then picking it up off the strings with a slight horizontal motion to make another sound.”
After Evans’ introduction, Friesen then introduced the first piece ‘Sky Pond’ composed by Berklee alumnus Andy Reiner of Lexington, one of the first founding members of the Berklee World Strings. One could immediately hear the ‘chopping’ technique, and the orchestral members displayed incredible precision and control throughout.
The second piece, ‘Devious’ by Randy Sabien and Bob Phillips, featured three of our own Medfield sixth grade soloists: Lauren Bate, Neva Fuller, and Paulina Derevyanko, who had improvised their solos on the spot. As explained by Friesen, the piece shows “what a jazz process would be like when jazz musicians get together; just a few lines, it expresses the creative flexibility that it takes to be a studio musician today.”
For the third and fourth pieces, the seventh and eighth grade Medfield orchestra members took the stage alongside Berklee World Strings to perform ‘Blue Rythmico.’ Friesen introduced the blues-influenced composition with a speech about musical styles and freedom of expression.
“Just because you play a classical instrument, that does not mean you have to play classical music. You can make anything you can imagine and can hear with any instrument you have on hand,” Friesen explained.
The fifth performance was given solely by Berklee World Strings and, despite the small size of their ensemble (just about twenty musicians), their sound was powerful. The group’s Scottish fiddler, Louise Bichan, had composed this first piece, but was unfortunately absent due to illness. Luckily, group member Louisa Byron knew the song and played in Louise’s honor, while honoring Louise’s grandparents, for whom the piece was originally composed for. The sheet music was displayed for the audience to see, and Friesen described the few notes and long rests. It was incredible to see just a few, scattered musical notes on paper and then to hear the translation fill the entire auditorium with sound.
This impressive performance was followed by composition ‘The Soul of the White Ant’ written by Eugene Friesen himself, inspired by early 20th-century naturalist Eugene Marais and his book on termites or the African ‘white ant.’ Marais noticed that the workings of a termite nest were identical to the functioning of a human body; air purification systems, communications, and other processes within the nest function like a human organism. To test this intrinsic communication system, Marais slipped a metal plate between two groups of termites, and the creatures created identical arches that touched perfectly at the center, just above the steel plate, even though they had been unable to see the progress and positioning of the arch on the other side. Friesen couldn’t get these ideas out of his head and so he composed this ten-minute, cinematic masterwork reflecting such aspects of the termite as birth, their warriors, and even lullabies. It was also noted that this was the world premier of this version of his piece.
The High School Orchestra then joined Berklee World Strings, totaling 75 musicians on stage all together. To introduce the group, Evans returned to the stage with a great thanks to MMA, CAM, MCC, and to all students, parents and volunteers. As she teared up, she said she owed a “debt of gratitude to the school committee” and to all of those behind the scenes. Her final speech was just as inspiring as the collaborative performance with composition ‘I Coulda Told You’ by Darol Anger, featuring what Friesen referenced as ‘psycho-grass,’ a progressive bluegrass piece.
This was not only a beautiful musical experience, but also an educational one; the Medfield Strings orchestral students were able to play with a prestigious conductor and group from the foremost music college in the world, exploring new ideas and learning that a strong foundation can lead to success in any direction, and in any musical genre one wishes to explore. The audience, too, was educated in a variety of musical styles and perhaps new ideas that could influence their own tastes and forms of expression. It was a privilege to see such this collaboration and to hear such fantastic music, and you can learn more about the Medfield Strings program online at http://medfieldstrings.weebly.com, and you can follow Berklee World Strings on Facebook for upcoming events and collaborations at www.facebook.com/Berklee-World-Strings-118261374857326.