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2018-02-07 / Featured / Front Page

At Clover Hill, a youth string orchestra preps for its debut

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


Alex Taing, above, focuses on a piece of music. As the group’s concertmaster, the 17-year-old helps conductor Justin Williams demonstrate musical concepts for the Cavalier 21 String Orchestra. 
ASH DANIEL Alex Taing, above, focuses on a piece of music. As the group’s concertmaster, the 17-year-old helps conductor Justin Williams demonstrate musical concepts for the Cavalier 21 String Orchestra. ASH DANIEL The twenty-one bows dance in the air, thrusting, lulling back, then chugging quickly together.

Twenty-one bodies, dressed in tuxedos and black gowns, sway in time to the music. Mozart pours from their instruments, filling the otherwise empty auditorium at Clover Hill High with sound.

And at the center of all this action is conductor Justin Williams, a dynamic figure who looks like “Entourage” actor Adrian Grenier with a curlier mane. Like the musicians in front of him, Williams moves dramatically in time, rocking his body and using his hands to express what he desires musically from the group.

Occasionally, he pauses the action to explain himself further: “That E has to have so much note to it, or the audience loses interest.” “We got a little out of sync at [measure] 22.” “First violins, what’s the emotion here?”


Founder and conductor Justin Williams (right), himself a Clover Hill grad, now oversees Cav 21. Previously, Williams played violin professionally and taught music in St. Louis and northern Virginia. Tenth-grader Adam Jones, below, plays Amadeus Mozart’s “Divertimento in F major, K. 138” on cello. 
PHOTOS BY ASH DANIEL Founder and conductor Justin Williams (right), himself a Clover Hill grad, now oversees Cav 21. Previously, Williams played violin professionally and taught music in St. Louis and northern Virginia. Tenth-grader Adam Jones, below, plays Amadeus Mozart’s “Divertimento in F major, K. 138” on cello. PHOTOS BY ASH DANIEL On this Thursday morning, the high school auditorium is serving as a practice space for the Cavalier 21 String Orchestra – Cav 21 for short – a new amateur group made up of Clover Hill students. The orchestra joins three others at Clover Hill – Beginning, Concert and Chamber. Williams, an orchestra teacher at Clover Hill and 2007 graduate of the school, brought together its best string musicians to found Cav 21 last year.

Aside from this group, Williams says there are no other amateur or professional string orchestras in the area. To stock such a group with professional musicians would be costly, he says; forming one from Clover Hill students just made sense.

“This school has always been a powerhouse for strings,” he explains. “It always has some of the best players in the state.”

Now, Cav 21 is gearing up for its inaugural season. It will hold its first public concert this Sunday at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on Monument Avenue. On Feb. 18, they’ll play at the Hofheimer Building in the city’s Scott’s Addition neighborhood, as part of an event held by classical music organization Classical Revolution RVA. Both concerts are free to attend.

“They already have most of the technique,” Williams says of his student orchestra. “They just need to figure out how to express together and get all of the details. There’s not a lot of high school groups that can play at this level.”

Williams sees Cav 21’s youth as a strength, and he hopes audiences will, too. One goal of the group is to present classical music to audiences in a more dynamic light.

“I feel like sometimes audiences are expecting classical music to be kind of dull, just to sit through it and let the music wash over them,” Williams says. “With these kids, you just get so much more life out of them. For them, it is life. They care about every single phrase or note. There’s just so much energy behind it.”

Alex Taing, the orchestra’s concertmaster and principal first violinist, says he’s glad to have found a group of fellow young musicians who are this interested in classical music.

“I am very excited, because we get to share our take on the music, which is a little more young and youthful,” says the 17-year-old junior. “It’s a really great experience.”

Cav 21’s first two concerts will open with “Largo ma non tanto,” the second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins.” “It’s probably one of the most famous violin duets ever written, and by far the most beautiful,” Williams says. “It’s just a beautiful way to start the concert, just to warm up the room.”

The group will also perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Divertimento in F major, K. 138.”

“It’s just this piece where every four measures, there’s something new happening in the music, whether it’s just pure joy or affection or shyness,” Williams says. “Mozart wrote this when he was younger than most of the students who are performing it, and it just needs that youthful take on it to express all of those little micro-emotions.”

But the show-stopper is Franz Schubert’s No. 14, “Death and the Maiden,” first movement: Allegro. Williams says the piece is one of the most difficult for strings, and his colleagues are surprised the youth orchestra is attempting it. “The piece is just the most intense and fiery piece you will ever hear,” he says. “It’s all about the story between a maiden and death slowly encroaching.”

Katy Stenner, a 14-year-old violist, believes audiences will enjoy it.

“It’s a very intense piece,” says the freshman, who wants to go into music as a career. She also enjoys the Mozart piece. “He was a prankster in life, and a lot of that factors into his music.”

Going forward, Williams plans to have classical programming during the first half of the calendar year, then devote the second half of the year to more popular works, including movie themes and covers of pop music.

“No one else [in the area] is playing string orchestra music,” Williams says. “This kind of music, you won’t hear anywhere else.” ¦

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