By Alexandra Alpert

Screenshot 2023 12 13 10.32.18 PM
Members of the intermediate youth orchestra perform under the direction of Justin Newberger.
Photo credit: Alexandra Alpert

 A sea of excited faces gathers in a large auditorium at Northwestern High School, forming a mosaic of pride and anticipation. The air is alive with whispers, laughter and gentle rustles of program pamphlets. 

Children and teenagers arrange their instruments and playbooks, eager to get started. The stage is set with a black curtain and white, inward-arching acoustic walls to ensure the audience can  hear as well as possible. 

On the brisk and rainy night of Dec. 3, the youth band and youth orchestras of the College Park Arts Exchange were ready to perform their fall concert, which they had been preparing for since September. 

After a short introduction from Sarah Winston, the band director, the first group began their opening song “Let it Snow.” 

The first chime hit the audience with a crisp familiarity. Parents and grandparents, teachers and friends hummed and swayed to the rhythm of the music. 

Katherine Simonetti has attended her 16-year-old daughter’s orchestra concerts for around five years.      

“ [Orchestra events] are enriching for the youth of College Park. I think it’s a great opportunity for kids in the orchestra and even the kids who come to listen to the performance,” Simonetti said. 

Four different groups within the College Park Arts Exchange performed at the concert: the College Park Youth Band, and the three divisions of the College Park Youth Orchestra – the primary, intermediate and chamber ensembles. 

Kenneth Whitley, a cellist, directed the orchestra’s primary and intermediate ensembles for 17 years, ending in the spring of 2023. This concert was the first time he’d come back to see groups perform, now under the direction of Justin Newberger, a former orchestra director at Northwestern High School. 

“ I’ll never let go of the organization,” Whitley said. 

Whitley believes that students will carry their experience of being part of the youth orchestra with them for the rest of their lives. 

“Being in a youth orchestra is an expansive experience … It broadens who you are, who you understand yourself to be,” he said. Whitley is an alumnus of the DC Youth Orchestra Program. 

The chamber ensemble, directed by Claudia Chudacoff, a violinist, played last. After playing music by George Frideric Handel, Scott Joplin, Antonin Dvořák and Philip Glass, they finished the concert with a playful arrangement of the song “Jingle Bells.” Some hummed along, and younger children danced in the auditorium aisles. 

The audience gave a standing ovation at the end of the performance, filling the room with their clapping and cheering. 

“These [events] carry with students for the rest of their lives. Whether they become professional musicians or not, this is an experience that will stay with them,” Whitley said.

Alexandra Alpert is an intern at the College Park Here & Now.