On April 29, Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra will put on its final performance of the year. Unlike the past three concerts where the soloists were famous musicians, this time the featured soloists will be GU students.
Students competed in the prestigious Young Artist’s Concerto/ Aria Competition for a stop at center stage earlier in the semester and the three were selected as winners.
“They were chosen purely on their skill level,” said Kevin Hekmatpanah, director of the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra and professor of music. “My goal in this is to give as many people as possible the opportunity to perform in front of an orchestra.”
There will be two soloists performances on Monday night: Rylan Virnig, a junior music performance and economics major, and a duet between Rachael Gowen, a senior biology major, and Katrina Baber, a senior computer science major. Virnig will be performing “Mozart Violin Concerto 3” on violin and Gowen and Baber will be singing “La Nuit” by Amédée-Ernest Chausson.
There will also be three other pieces performed by the orchestra that will highlight the quality of the new Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center.
Virnig began playing the violin at the age of 3. His mom would take him to the symphony and he would always ask if he could play the violin. This exposure to music at a young age is what sparked Virnig’s passion for music and the violin.
“[My progression was] slow and steady. I was never the prodigy growing up, I always just loved it,” Virnig said. “So, it took me a long time to find my grounds, but in high school I started to perform in symphonies, like the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and of course my teachers really inspired me to continue with my violin.”
A big stepping stone for Virnig was when he played one of his favorite pieces: “The Mendelssohn Octet.”
After that performance, getting into and performing with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony was when Virnig knew that performing was something he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Since Virnig has been at GU he has played with the symphony and is the concert master this year. He has also performed with chamber groups.
The performances he enjoys the most are with the community. He’s done some benefit concerts for the Spokane Food Bank. And while studying abroad in Florence last semester, he worked as a teacher’s assistant and would teach English songs with his violin.
“In the past few months, I have seen a great deal of growth,” said Jason Moody, who has been Virnig’s instructor for one semester. “In particular, his sound has become more powerful and his ability to communicate through his music has improved immensely.”
“Rylan supports his other violin colleagues and is so generous with his time for everyone,” Hekmatpanah said. “He’s the first one to raise his hand and offer himself for the good of the orchestra and the department.”
For Virnig his performance is not about himself — it’s about the people who support him.
“My grammy and my mom will be at the concert and they’ve been my biggest support since day one,” Virnig said. “This piece that I’m playing is one I used to listen to with both of them when I was really young and it is why I chose the piece I’m playing.”
After graduating from GU, Virnig wants to use his musical talent and knowledge to help his community.
“My dream since I was young was to play in some sort of chamber group, but to also conduct a youth symphony because that was the final stepping stone that got me to major in music. So, I would love to go back to that scene of conducting a youth group of some sort,” Virnig said.
Katrina Baber and Rachael Gowen
For Baber and Gowen this performance is a culmination of their journeys at GU. For them, music and singing have been integral parts of their lives.
“My grandma was an opera singer at the Paris Conservatory and that’s how she and my grandpa met. When they came to the United States, she instilled music in her family and through that, my mom instilled it in me,” Baber said.
Baber has always struggled with handling her nerves for a performance. Some of her stand out moments include a performance in a recital her sophomore year where she sang without being affected by nerves at all.
The other was in her first semester in concert choir, during which they performed a song called “A Child of Our Time.” The song was about one of the nights that began World War II and her grandmother was actually there when it was happened. It was through this performance that Baber realized music has an impact not only on the performer but the people who were listening.
Much like Baber, Gowen’s grandmother was also an opera singer. Through having this inspiration and a variety of teachers, she was encouraged to stay in choir.
“My freshman year of high school I actually didn’t want to do choir,” Gowen said. “My sister forced me into it, but when we hit our first harmony I was sold.”
The similarities in their respective journeys are how Baber and Gowen became friends, and ultimately what led them to audition for this concert together.
“I’ve worked with them both since they were sophomores,” Darnelle Preston, who is Baber and Gowens’ vocal instructor said. “They came in as students with nice voices, but not a lot of training and they have really come through the ranks and have become leaders in the programs they are involved in.”
Baber and Gowen have been working on this solo all semester.
“This piece is much more of a passing the baton back and forth and an actual partnership versus one person having the melody and the other harmonizing. Both of us have moments where their skill sets are able to shine,” Baber said.
“I think this performance is coming at a really pivotal time. It’s right before graduation and getting to do it with a close friend really means a lot,” Gowen said. “The song itself is really beautiful piece to anyone who hears it and is a really warm and welcome song for the [MWPAC].”
The new MWPAC provides incredible opportunities for students and the music department at GU to continue to grow and flourish.
“They will be completing an endurance challenge of sorts. Because of the well-designed acoustics, I look forward to hearing how this will heighten these 19 students’ abilities to listen as an ensemble and share their art with audiences in ever-sensitive ways,” said Timmothy Westerhaus chair of the music department and director of choirs and vocal studies, in an email.
“What these students are going to learn in the next few weeks will carry with them for the rest of their lives. What they are going to learn through this experience can’t be taught any other way,” Hekmatpanah said. “You can’t read in a book how to play with an orchestra. A teacher can’t say this is what you have to do to solo with an orchestra. You can talk about it and talk about it but until you actually do it you don’t actually know what [it means to play with an orchestra].”
The concert will be on Monday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $16 for general admission, $13 for students and seniors and free for GU students, faculty and staff.
Riley Utley is a news editor. Follow her on Twitter: @rileyutley.