The Hopkins Symphony Orchestra

(Photo by Alan Kolc)

The Hopkins Symphony Orchestra: My Enjoyments and Experiences

Being a part of the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra (HSO) was one of my inspirations for applying to Johns Hopkins in the first place: Although I did not know too many specifics about the HSO or the Hopkins Symphony Chamber Orchestra (HSCO) during my college application process, I knew that both orchestras were available to Homewood students and that I could also have the opportunity to minor in music. (In addition to six academic courses, the music minor requires two semesters of lessons or ensembles. The HSO and the HSCO can both count for these ensembles.) Aside from my admiration of the school’s campus, of its brick buildings and its beautiful setting, I was particularly drawn to the orchestras, the music minor program at Hopkins, and any other musical opportunities within the Baltimore area that I could find (such as JHU’s Peabody Conservatory, just about 10 minutes away by free shuttle bus, and the free Shriver Hall Concert Series tickets offered to JHU students). And I believe that my involvement with music, especially with the HSO, has been one of my most fulfilling experiences at Hopkins.

What is the HSO, and what do we do? I take this from the HSO website: “The only community orchestra in Baltimore City, the HSO is dedicated to performing and promoting orchestral and chamber music from the standard and contemporary repertoires at a high artistic level. HSO reaches out to a diverse audience through affordable concerts and educational programs like public school instrumental mentoring, lecture-demonstrations, and free pre-concert talks. The 150 musicians performing in HSO concerts each year are chosen by competitive audition. The Orchestra features young Maryland soloists and composers as they develop their careers. Among HSO’s prominent soloists have been Sara Davis Buechner, Allison Charney, Brian Ganz, Hilary Hahn, Stefan Jackiw, Awadagin Pratt, and Eugenia Zukerman.”

What is the difference between the HSO and the HSCO? What are the time commitments? Students frequently ask these questions, and I too wondered about this when I first came to Hopkins. The answers can be important to consider if one is debating how much time to commit to music or which orchestra atmosphere is preferable.

The HSO is bigger, more selective, and requires a larger time commitment than the HSCO; focuses on large-scored works, including symphonies, concertos, some operas, oratorios, and even world premieres; rehearses on weeknights; and is conducted by Jed Gaylin, our professional and generous music director for 18 seasons. String players dedicate about 2.5 hours of rehearsal every Monday night, while woodwind, brass, and percussion players vary per concert. More rehearsals are required from all players the week before the concert. As a clarinetist, I generally play in 2 out of the 4 performances, and thus rehearse less, especially since I do not perform in all pieces per concert. This scheduling can be an advantage for woodwind, brass, and percussion players, because Mondays become more flexible. Last year (2010-2011), the orchestra members total 140, though every year varies.

The HSCO has fewer musicians (around 25-50, depending on the piece), focuses on chamber orchestra and small-ensemble works, rehearses on weekends, and is conducted by Vladimir Lande, the HSCO’s experienced and driven (to say the least) chamber conductor. The HSCO offers many more performing opportunities to string players than to woodwind, brass, and percussion players. To learn more about the conductors and the differences between the two orchestras, visit http://www.jhu.edu/jhso/about/orch_descrips.html.

October 16, 2010 HSO Concert

What makes the HSO unique? Personally, the HSO is unique to me in that it consists not only of JHU students, but also faculty, staff, and alumni, and musicians around the Baltimore/Washington D.C. community. There’s something magical happening when one gets to play with others from various age groups: no matter what the level of musical experiences we each come from, we are all able to join together for every rehearsal and performance to produce music that we love. This community foundation, to me, establishes a more mature approach to playing music, than high school. I believe it is a rare opportunity that not many other groups at Hopkins have. Even my friends are often surprised to discover that one of my past professors plays with me in the orchestra. I am not the only one who feels that this is a unique process at work – some JHU alumni players enjoy reminiscing about their past with current students, while some musicians inform others about additional performing opportunities outside of HSO. We all connect in some way or another. Another random fun fact: Everyone goes by first names in the orchestras, even the conductors! We are all a friendly and equal bunch.

Why did I choose to become involved? As a student very dedicated to music since I was young, I wanted to continue my musical endeavors with high standards. I also wanted to learn more about the symphonic music in this world, an endless library of surprises, beauty, and life. No doubt, the HSO has raised the bar for me. With fewer woodwinds in orchestra than band – and than string players in orchestra – the HSO has motivated me not only to practice more carefully before coming to rehearsal, but also to understand more of what it means to be in an orchestra and to work with others as a collective body. As the only HSO undergraduate clarinetist as of last year, sometimes I even question whether or not I deserve to be in the HSO! But that gives me all the more motivation to succeed!

What else have I gotten out of being in the HSO? I have gotten so much out of being part of orchestra. I have enjoyed performing pieces by Beethoven, Bruch, Donizetti, Franck, and Gounod. During my freshman year and sophomore year, the clarinetists also gathered together to perform Minimalist pieces at a chamber concert: Steve Reich’s “New York Counterpoint” and Jonathan Russell’s “Eleven.” Both were pretty difficult and challenging, but definitely exciting experiences! The latter piece was even conducted by the composer himself; to know how Russell specifically wished the music to sound contributed to an inspiring experience. Also, with 11 different clarinet parts, it was necessary for us to have independently practiced our parts before understanding how the whole piece fit together.

Furthermore, although I initially joined orchestra for performance purposes only, I learned during my freshman year that volunteering is extremely worthwhile and something I thoroughly enjoy doing. I have assisted our previous HSO general manager Edie Stern, done a little ushering, distributed marketing flyers, told current students and prospective freshmen about the orchestras at the Student Activities Fair & Admitted Students’ Activities Fair, and continue to serve on the Advisory Board. Through these experiences, I have gained greater communication skills with a variety of people, learned more about the management of an orchestra (it takes a lot of work!), and enjoyed sharing my love for orchestra with others. Perhaps you may even see me and our new HSO General Manager Nicoleen Willson at future activities fairs!

Edie and I at the Fall ’10 Student Activities Fair (we wore matching colors without knowing beforehand!)

When and how can freshmen be involved? You can register for an audition online in August. Auditions take place in September. One audition covers both orchestras, so just state your preference of which orchestra you wish to play in (some musicians want to be in both orchestras!). As a Hopkins student, you get first priority for acceptance, so apply and audition away! After you get accepted, we highly encourage you to volunteer your time with the orchestras as well as play. Even putting flyers around the freshmen dorms can be very helpful! We are always looking for help.

Students who are not in the orchestra are warmly welcome to come out to HSO concerts. JHU students get in for free! We realize that word of mouth is the best way to promote our concerts and our orchestras, so it is great to spread the word early on to first-year students. I remember that even though I did not perform in the first concert my freshman year, my floormates and even my RA from Wolman all came out to support one of our other floormates, Kang Kang, and the rest of the orchestra. Some of my floormates even said it was their first time coming to an orchestra concert. It’s this simple task of spreading the word about the orchestra that makes our music playing successful and worthwhile to share.


A few of my floormates and I after the 10/24/09 concert

Best of luck on auditions! And hope to have you join us! :)

– Brittany Leung