“If you’re brought up in Charlottesville, this city is the center of the universe,” says Laura Mulligan Thomas. “It’s a great town; a wonderful place,” the long-time conductor of the Charlottesville High School Orchestra quickly adds. But when her young musicians perform further afield (in France, Italy, England and Switzerland, for example), she says it broadens their perspective and opens their eyes to the possibility of living somewhere else and getting to know “people who have a different mindset than you.”
In June, the 55 members of Thomas’ CHS String Ensemble will have an opportunity to expand their worldview when they travel to Ireland, where, in addition to serving as ambassadors for Charlottesville and the United States, they will perform in ancient castles and join local musicians for an Irish music jam session.
“Traveling overseas is an incredible experience,” says senior Cameron Ciambotti, who’s played the violin for 12 years, three of them in the string ensemble. “But traveling overseas with musicians to both share and experience music is a unique experience that most are unable to have. In Ireland, we will be able to understand the culture in much more depth by making connections using the world’s universal language: music.” She says that by bringing their music to Ireland, CHS students will be exposed to the unique sounds the country offers, and “learn more about the culture than we ever could have without music.”
Before heading to the Emerald Isle, though, the group still has some fundraising to do (the trip will cost almost $200,000). The kids have held car washes and sold concessions at University of Virginia events. A March auction will feature 14 violins painted by local artists, including Meg West, Christy Yates, Sharon Shapiro and Judith Eli, as well as CHS and UVA students. The instruments are currently on display in the windows of several downtown shops, like Tuel Jewelers, The Shoe Store Next Door, Angelo Jewelry and Lynne Goldman Elements, before moving to Studio IX, where they’ll remain until March 25.
One of everyone’s favorite annual fundraisers occurred in January, when the entire orchestra performed Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which included a post-show “petting zoo” that gave audience members an up-close look at the instruments, and an opportunity to meet the high school musicians.
“Peter and the Wolf has been the most phenomenal tool,” not only for raising money, but for “getting kids engaged and excited about playing instruments and for developing our program,” says Thomas, who had only eight orchestra members when she arrived at CHS 35 years ago. “I can’t tell you how many children have come to the show and then decided to pick up an instrument and learn it well enough so they can be part of our orchestra,” which now has 139 members and has won numerous awards and honors.
For Ciambotti, being part of Thomas’ orchestra also comes with the gift of making music with people she has known for a long time. She sits next to a student with whom she plays in the Youth Orchestras of Central Virginia and sings with in the school’s a cappella choir. “We know each other’s musical tendencies extremely well and we are able to play as one,” she says. “This is definitely a pattern throughout the entire orchestra—we are so close that, no matter how the technical parts of the pieces sound, we will always be one cohesive unit.”
Contributions to the CHS String Ensemble’s June 23-30 trip to Ireland can be made at chsorchestra.org.