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Area students earned national chamber music recognition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2011 - Four St. Louis area students gained international recognition after winning a second place medal earlier this month in the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, which is the largest chamber music competition in the world. The students, Jecoliah Wang (violin), Emily DeBold (violin), Charles Longtine (viola) and Richard Mazuski (cello), make up the Milo Quartet from the Preparatory Program of the Community Music School of Webster University.

These students competed in the junior division of the competition and were awarded a $1,500 scholarship. Two other Preparatory Program groups, the Gateway Trio and the Henson Quartet, also competed and made it to the quarter finals. The Beacon caught up with a couple of the students.

"It was pretty thrilling, I mean nothing like that has quite happened to me before, to make it that far in a competition," Mazuski said. "You don't really get that nervous because you're with your friends, you sort of develop a certain amount of trust with them so you can go on stage confident."

According to Community Music School Director Carol Commerfield, students in the Preparatory Program are placed in ensembles that are coached weekly by professionals in the field, such as members of the St. Louis Symphony. The ensembles are rearranged three times a year. The Fischoff ensembles were placed in November and, unlike other groups, rehearsed throughout the winter school break.

"Other programs do it differently, but in our program we feel that in high school it's much more important to play different kinds of chamber music with different instruments and learn how to work with all kinds of people," said Vera Parkin, artistic director and Preparatory Program founder.

For example, Shelby Nugent, French horn player in the Gateway Trio, has also been placed in sextets with a clarinet, strings and piano, a quintet with just strings, and now works with a piano and violin in her trio.

Placing students into ensembles with like abilities and personal compatibilities is one of Parkin's responsibilities. She said she generally hasn't had trouble with groups not working together well, and a lot of the issues can be resolved with strategic scheduling.

"Most of our students are, I think, very mature for their age, and they have to be to pull off what they're trying to do," She said. "What they're trying to do is super human, and sometimes it can be kind of hard."

Parkin said the program budgets for three DVD entries to the Fischoff Competition; and the students know that they must show an advanced level of playing to represent the school. If the ensemble qualifies for the quarter finals, they get to perform live at the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind.

"The audition tape was actually pretty bad," Mazuski said of his group. "At the time we just sort of scratched it together at the last minute because I was leaving for the weekend right before it was due. We didn't even have a professional appointment or anything. We just got into the auditorium and did it. The quality wasn't very good because it wasn't professionally done."

Mazuski said that originally the Milo Quartet was an alternate to qualify for the quarter finals. "I mainly blame the quality of the recording," Mazuski said.

But qualify it did.

The Gateway Trio, made up of Nugent, Erica Westenberg (violin) and Rachel Robin (piano); and Henson Quartet, Sabrina Salamone and Rebekah Heckler (violins), Sean Byrne (viola) and Daniel Kopp (cello) also made it to the quarterfinals.

Heckler said when she found out she made it to the competition, "[There was] definitely a lot of jumping up and down, calling other members of the group, a lot of excitement."

The Gateway Trio and Henson Quartet did not advance to the semifinals.

"If you get to the live competition, to the quarter final round, and you don't advance after that, you still get to play a master class with one of the jurors, and the jurors are the most famous players in chamber music in America, so they're very good, the top of the field," Parkin said.

The Gateway Trio took part in a master class with George Skakeeny, a bassoon instructor from the Oberlin Conservatory, and the Henson Quartet worked with Anne Francis, cellist from the Fry Street Quartet. Heckler said that only 45 minutes working with Francis showed great improvement in her quartet and that she wished she had more time to work with her.

"It's really cool to hear all these professional ideas on how to make our sound more mature," she said.

After the quarterfinals on Friday, the Milo Quartet performed in the semifinals on Saturday and then the final round on Sunday.

"It was really just sort of a crazy ride," Mazuski said. "We really weren't expecting to make it past quarter finals, and then we did. We weren't expecting to make it past semifinals, and then we did. We weren't expecting to place second, but then we did. For some reason or another things worked out for us, but it was mostly being surprised constantly with each passing round. We didn't really think of the live performance, we just thought of our music and what we wanted to do with it before we walk on stage."

To get into the Preparatory Program, students in grades 7 to 12 go through an audition that includes sight reading, a 30-minute written theory test, two contrasting pieces or movements to demonstrate musical ability and all major scales. To find out more, go to the Prep website.

Abby Spudich, a student at the University of Missouri Columbia, is a Beacon intern.

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