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Lafayette Orchestra lands a coveted gig

An invitation to perform at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago is one of the biggest honors a high school orchestra can receive.

It's also one of the biggest challenges.

The name might make it sound like a regional hospital, but the clinic is the largest annual gathering of school band and orchestra conductors in the world. More than 15,000 people from 30 nations will attend the weeklong conference this month.

So, as the Lafayette High School Chamber Orchestra prepares for its Dec. 16 concert at the Midwest Clinic, the 16 teenage members know they couldn't have a more knowledgeable — or demanding — audience.

"We've put a lot of work into this," said Jonathan Karp, 16, a junior who has played violin since he was 2 and will be a featured soloist. "It has been the focus of our school year."

If you want to hear a preview, the orchestra will perform the program at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center. The concert is free.

Lafayette is only the fourth Kentucky high school orchestra to be invited to perform at the clinic, now in its 62nd year. Only 20 other Kentucky ensembles of any kind have played there. The Lafayette Band and Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras both performed in 1993.

"The talent level of the students individually is very strong," said Jennifer Grice, who is in her third year as Lafayette's orchestra director. "The biggest focus this year has been putting their individual talents together to be an outstanding ensemble."

School concert band and orchestra music is rated by difficulty, and three of the 10 pieces that Lafayette will perform are rated in the most difficult category. They include works by J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich.

In an unusual move, the orchestra will play a piece, Blues for Oaktown, that includes new electric stringed instruments — two violins, viola and cello.

Two Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinists will perform as soloists with Lafayette: Nathan Cole, a Lexington native, and his wife, Akiko Tarumoto.

In addition to Grice, there will be two guest conductors: Nancy Campbell, orchestra director at SCAPA Bluegrass, and J. Steven Moore, the director of bands at Colorado State University. He was director of the Lafayette Band when it played at the Midwest Clinic.

"They're going to perform for a crowd of people who truly understand music and high school orchestras," Moore said.

Moore said taking the Lafayette Band to play at the Midwest Clinic in 1993 was one of the highlights of his career. In part, that was because his father, J. Larry Moore, who was a Lafayette Band director before him, had been to Midwest with one of his earlier bands, Ashland's Paul Blazer High School, in 1970.

"I'm looking forward to being part of that magical moment that I know those kids are going to experience at Midwest," Moore said. "It will be something they will never forget."

The magic won't come easy. There have been more than seven hours of group rehearsals each week this school year, in addition to individual daily practice.

Orchestra members also have raised money and sought sponsors and donations. The trip will cost about $20,000 because the students are staying several days in Chicago to hear and learn from other bands and orchestras that were chosen to perform.

In preparation for the concert, Grice has brought in frequent guest conductors, and students said they have learned a lot from them.

"Orchestra has been a lot more rigorous this year," said Nick Blackburn, 17, a junior who plays double bass.

"Never before have I put so much time and preparation into a performance," said Julia Mead, 15, a sophomore cellist. "It has been difficult but extremely rewarding. It feels good to play so well."

Grice said only two of her students are seniors, so the experience should build a lot of momentum for the orchestra's future.

"It's a really great opportunity for our orchestra, and it should go a long way toward getting younger kids interested in it," said Jacob Yates, 16, a junior cellist. "I think people should realize we have something like this in Kentucky."