In the Pursuit of Mastery

By Stuart Diamond

Saturday afternoon, January 19 2019, at the Fort Washington Collegiate Church. I am there to watch the premiere of The Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra’s (WHCO) innovative bilingual version of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat (renamed La Historia del Soldado), with original choreography by Billy Smith of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

I have been with this production from its inception. I have watched the creative team led by Chris Whittaker and Billy Smith, develop a show that is fresh, original, and in my estimation and by many others who saw the performance, masterful.  So much so that it made me reflect on what it is to create a masterful dance-theater production such as this.

Soldat itself is an odd step-child of the Stravinsky catalogue. Collaborating with librettist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, Stravinsky composed the score while he and his wife lived in exile in Switzerland during World War I. The piece was intended as a travelling cabaret act to earn money. It is a mix of narration, movement, and music.  It also contains some of Stravinsky’s most innovative early music, exploring a mix of classical, jazz, and other popular styles, at least as he imagined it.

The storyline is distilled from Russian folktales. It is a parable of a Soldier, the Devil, and a Princess – their trials, triumphs, and tribulations. The story has a dark Slavic ethos – in contrast to our American positive self-help philosophies that insist we should have it all. Today, Soldat has become a staple of the repertoire, and is presented in a variety of formats – music-theater, dance, or as concert music, with or without narration.

Chris Whittaker pulled off his typical hat trick of juggling multiple roles simultaneously. The core concept was his – a bilingual (Spanish-English) version of the work that would reflect the linguistic reality of the streets of Washington Heights. He commissioned the translation and then weaved the two settings into a single narrative. Finally, he pulled together all the creative players and forged it into a stellar production.

The music is tricky - with complex rhythmic patterns, changing in and out of odd meters. Whittaker, with his precise, authoritative, and muscular conducting style, proved his reputation as one of the most promising, emerging young conductors in the New York music scene. The musicians keyed into him, laying down a foundational bedrock - absolutely necessary for the success of a complex dance-theater performance.

The new bilingual translation, as performed by Ursula Tinoco and Luis Ponce, worked remarkably well. At least for those of us who live in polyglot worlds. When you let go of trying to understand every word, somehow we get the gist – just as we do on the streets in the Heights.

Next question: What is masterful choreography?

My premise is that dance is the interweaving of sound and visuals – usually music and the human form. As a composer, who has worked with dancers and choreographers, I am biased to the position that the music is the emotional bedrock of any dance work. Music controls the innate and subliminal impact of feeling. Choreographers have choices. They can work with the sound palette or against it. But the music cannot be ignored. Even silence is its own form of music that must be considered.

The choreographer also chooses whether they are simply telling a story or constructing a purely abstract dance based on movement alone. Or something in between. 

We might understand what makes masterful choreography by understanding how it reflects music composition. Music compositions are often built on identifiable motifs, small cells of a few notes. Think of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth: “Ta-ta-ta- duummm…”

Parallel to music, a choreographer may create small motifs, the building blocks of the dance. These are movement-visualizations to the musical motifs heard in the aural landscape. Then it is up to the choreographer’s imagination to vary these motifs of movement, developing image upon image. Just as in music, there is a treasure trove of technical variations – unison, canon, retrograde, inversions, etc. But because all the variations use the same underlying motifs there is a sense of unity that holds our imaginations as we watch and listen. The choreographer then builds the dance, taking us on a journey that rises and falls with meaningful tensions and releases. And when it works well, it can open the doors to the sublime that can be both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Soldado opens with a Stravinsky march, the narrators intoning, “Down a hot and dusty road, tramps a soldier with his load.” Smith has his three dancers march up the center aisle from the back of the church. He recognizes that the center aisle is a 3-dimensional rectangle that the dancers are moving through. As they march up the aisle, each dancer uses their hands and arms to articulate the same rectangular space. Yet each dancer’s movements are unique, reflecting the character they play. The Soldier, pumping his arms up and down, has the stiff march of a military man. The Princess’s fingertips touch, as though she is praying. The Devil swaggers with a bold arrogance. Their footwork each instantly responds to the complex rhythmic patterns of Stravinsky’s music. (These are the movement motifs, the blocks, with which Smith will develop the choreography.) A deceptively simple march to our eyes and ears, yet the groundwork is being laid for what is to come.

Smith’s dance movement certainly evokes Mark Morris’s influence. However, he creates a distinctive voice by exploiting the inherent strengths of each dancer – an elite group also drawn from the Morris company. Aaron Loux’s Devil soars through the air – literally. His leaps and suspensions are uncanny. “After all,” Loux comments, “the Devil should be able to fly effortlessly.” Mica Bernas articulates the space around her. With every leg lift or flick of a finger she holds the pose for a microsecond. Her movement is an endless flow of painterly images. Her comment? “All that hard work really paid off.” And Domingo Estrada Jr. is a study in “athletic presence” – a tutorial in how sheer intensity of focus becomes magnetic. Whether simply standing still on stage or running past the audience as he runs down the aisle, it is hard to take your eyes off of him.  

As the dancers move onto the stage, we watch solos, duets, and trios – at times in perfect sync and the next moment breaking into counterpoints.  Each dancer is defined by their signature movements, but not limited to it.  As their parts all stem from the original motifs, there is an underlying unity. As a result, the complex work looks and feels clear, as though it is pristine geometry in motion

The Soldier’s arms reach forward, palms down, searching for his fulfillment and happiness. Our Princess begins with her hands at discreet angles – as though she is praying. When she raises her arms upwards, it is as though she is beseeching Heaven. At one point, she embraces the Soldier in a movement of love and comfort, her arms now matching his. The Devil leaps and bounds, his chest puffed out, hands on hip, swaggering about in his role as Tempter.  

As tale marches toward its conclusion, The Soldier seems to have prevailed. He has won the love of the Princess. Then the narrators reveal the moral of the fable: “No one can have it all. That is forbidden. You must learn to choose between. One happy thing is every happy thing. Two, is as if they had never been.”

The Devil tempts the Soldier once again with promises of even greater happiness – the reunification with his mother and family. The Soldier succumbs to the Devil’s final temptation and leaves the happiness he has found for something else.  In the final duet, we watch the Soldier’s outstretched arms become entangled in the Devil’s. His searching hands are now tied behind his back. He is becoming a marionette to the Devil’s puppet mastery. And at the final moment, we are left with a vision of the Devil, arms raised in triumph – and the Soldier, his arms raised in supplication beneath him.  

Yet, none of this is visually explicit. At best, it is only hinted at with passing imagery. And more so, the above description is solely my interpretation of what I saw on the stage. Billy Smith’s La Historia du Soldado is both specific and amorphous – allowing each member of the audience to provide their own perspective. 

Is this the magic and mystery of masterful choreography in live performance? The interaction between dancers, music, and audience – creating hundreds of interpretations (experiences that are very personal) of the same choreography, yet all elicited from the same imagery, stories, and parables that explore the universals of love, yearning, and fulfillment.

Chris Whittaker’s and Billy Smith’s La Historia del Soldado is ample testament that the next generation of master conductors, musicians, and choreographers has arrived.

Stuart Diamond is a composer, musician, and multimedia artist. He is on the Board of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra.

An Interview with Billy Smith, the Choreographer of La Historia Del Soldado

This January, Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra will present La Historia del Soldado, a new bilingual adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s L'histoire du Soldat. Translated by Margarita Feliciano, La Historia del Soldado will feature three dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group who will debut choreography by company member Billy Smith.  WHCO got the chance to sit down with him and talk about some of the inspirations and challenges that came along with La Historia del Soldado! Check out below:

Billy Smith of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Billy Smith of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra: When did you first begin to dance, and where did your love of dance come from? And from that, when did you begin to choreograph?

Billy Smith: My father put me into my first dance class when I was 6.  In Virginia. I loved the discipline, artistry and physicality of it.  It was also a great way to make friends at a young age. I started choreographing on my peers when I was about 11 or 12 just because it felt natural and it was something fun to do with my friends.

The Mark Morris Dance Group Student Company.

The Mark Morris Dance Group Student Company.

WHCO: Do you have any particular projects that you have done lately that you have really enjoyed?

Smith: I always enjoy making dances on the Mark Morris Dance Group Student Company.  They are usually a highlight of my year. These high schoolers are so eager and interested in everything.  It's refreshing and inspiring to work with them.

Recently, a fellow member of Mark Morris Dance Group, Lesley Garrison and myself created and performed a dance to Philip Glass' String Quartet 3. This was performed with live music in The Freer Sackler Meyer Auditorium in Washington D.C. I usually don't like dancing in things I create because I need to see the whole picture.  This project was a great challenge for me to step outside the normal.

WHCO: How did your relationship with Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra begin?

Smith: I was introduced to Chris Whittaker because I was recommended for this very project.

WHCO: How did you first approach the choreography for La Historia Soldado? Were there any particular themes or moments within the piece that inspired you?

Smith: I was not very familiar with the piece before I was approached by Chris.  After listening to a few different recordings I knew I had to take it on. I love challenging myself creatively and this is unlike anything I've ever worked on.  After studying the Ramuz libretto and thinking about all of the moving parts of L'Histoire du Soldat (actors acting, dancers dancing, musicians playing) I decided that it was best to keep things simple.  The dancers are onstage and the musicians and actors are in front of the stage in full view. Every element is equally important but this keeps the audience from being overwhelmed.

Composer Igor Stravinsky with writer C.F. Ramuz.

Composer Igor Stravinsky with writer C.F. Ramuz.

Stravinsky's musical themes with respect to the storyline is the soul of this L'Histoire du Soldat.  The music is fairly challenging to understand.  What is interesting to me is how it sounds and how it's written don't necessarily align.  There are so many different layers and rhythms happening simultaneously that the written meter sometimes becomes irrelevant for me as a choreographer.  This is not the case for the music of many composers. Stravinsky is very unique this way. It's challenging but also pushes you to do something you didn't think was possible because the lines aren't so crisp.  There are so many different ways to hear this music.

What I've done is taken the story, what it means to me and created something that I felt represented the bizarre union of the text and the music.  The actors are the bones of the piece while the dancers are the heart, lungs, blood and guts. The choreography focuses on the mood and feeling at each chapter of the story.  It is very expressive of the music while still respecting the dialogue of the actors.

WHCO: What are you looking forward to most about this project?

Smith: I'm looking forward to giving an emotional experience to our audience.  I hope that it is different for every person. The bilingual translation is going to be something very unique. I can't wait to see how it unfolds!

WHCO: And, of course, what do you love about Washington Heights?

Smith: I actually used to live in Washington Heights on 191st and Wadsworth.  What is great about The Heights is you can feel a pulse and a culture there.  Not everywhere in New York is like that. It is still vibrant and full of life.  Oh, and the food!

La Historia Del Soldado will take place at 3 PM on Saturday, January 19th at Fort Washington Collegiate Church. The performance will last for approximately one hour.  For more information, please visit our website. We hope to see you there!

Photo Credits:

A Gem of the Heights: Discovering the United Palace

Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra’s Too Hot to Handel will take place at the gorgeous United Palace in Washington Heights. This stunning space was founded in the 1930s and has become a gem of Washington Heights. WHCO spoke to the marketing team at United Palace in order to learn a little bit more about the space. Read below to find out more!

WHCO: The architecture of the United Palace is absolutely stunning. Would you be able to speak a bit about the history of the architecture and what guests can look for in the architecture?

United Palace: The history of the United Palace began in 1930, when it was then one of five Loew’s “Wonder Theaters” across the five NYC boroughs and New Jersey. At the beginning of the Great Depression, with very little technology at home, theatrical entertainment was a way to escape. The purpose of the architecture was to make you feel like royalty when you walked in and transport you to another world. The interior reflects the West’s obsession with exotic lands and cultures that was fashionable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are images of Buddhas, horses, elephants, lions, dragons, deer, cherubs, and so much more! Designed by noted architect Thomas Lamb (Cort Theater, the former Ziegfeld Theater) with interiors overseen by decorative specialist Harold Rambusch (Waldorf Astoria, Radio City Music Hall), it was one of the region’s premier vaudeville and movie houses.  

WHCO: Are there any specific efforts of restoration, whether they be ongoing or complete, that aided in the preservation of the space?

United Palace: Over the past year, the United Palace has been upgraded through a series of state-of-the-art improvements, including a 7.1 surround sound system and new concert speakers. The sonic modernization of the 88-year-old theater complements earlier upgrades, such as the addition of a 50-ft screen and DCP projector donated by Broadway superstar and Washington Heights local Lin-Manuel Miranda. This puts the United Palace in league with the best in NYC big screen cinemas. On-stage productions now also take place on a newly renovated stage floor, installed with Arboron – providing a harder, cleaner surface for dance, music events, theater and more. These efforts launched the theater into its next century of service for the surrounding community, solidifying its position as a premier venue for spirituality and arts.

WHCO: Are there any interesting facts about the space, whether it be movies that were shot there, secret rooms, or legends?

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United Palace: The first interesting fact is that the theater took only 13 months to build! Since the United Palace was the last of the five Wonder Theaters to be constructed, they pretty much had a solid process going. We’ve had tons of film and TV shoots at the United Palace, such as NBC’s Smash, Gotham, Netflix’s Luke Cage, and Café Society directed by Woody Allen. In addition, musical artists such as Adele, Bad Bunny, Lady Antebellum, Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, and Aventura have performed on our stage!

The last interesting fact is that in 1930, the second largest theater organ company, Robert-Morton, built five identical theater organs to place in each of the five Wonder Theaters. Of the five Wonder organs, the one in the United Palace is the last organ left in its original home, completely unaltered. The others have been taken out, moved, heavily altered, or destroyed. We are currently raising funds to make this grand and thunderous instrument playable again so that it will serve as the only remaining, consistently used theatre organ in NYC and stand as a tool to educate audiences and future musicians. It has a whopping 1,799 pipes, 23 sound effects, and weights about 1700 pounds! Learn more about the progress of this restoration or adopt a pipe at

WHCO: The mission of the United Palace of the Cultural Arts is to “uplift, educate, and unite the Northern Manhattan community”—can you talk about the programming United Palace does and how they work to achieve this goal? Are there any specific events that the community can look forward to at the United Palace?

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United Palace: The United Palace is an inclusive spiritual center, entertainment venue, and artistic hub in the heart of Washington Heights. Our programming is a reflection of the fusion of culture, spirituality and entertainment to delight audiences of all ages and backgrounds, all over the world. We honor the building’s legacy through world-class concerts, immersive multimedia productions, monthly movie screenings, spiritual programming, dance classes and more!  

In 2019, we invite you to attend a movie screening or an Open Heart Conversation, where we explore and celebrate spiritual traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American Spirituality and African Wisdom Traditions. Experienced teachers and respected leaders come and share their teachings, helping to foster respect, tolerance and human connection.

WHCO: Over the last 6 years and with the founding of the United Palace of the Cultural Arts, programming and use of the United Palace has expanded and changed quite a bit, and continues to do so.  Can you speak a little bit about the change that occurred upon the founding of the UPCA?

United Palace: UPCA really grew out of the artistic spirit that had been a part of the church since it purchased the theater in 1969. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the church held artistic activities and regularly wove artistic expression – particularly music – into its services. UPCA has helped revitalize many of those artistic pursuits to the United Palace, welcoming new neighbors into the building with children’s programs, movies, and, of course, music. With that decades-long view, there wasn’t so much a change in programming as a reawakening of it.

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WHCO: How do you think Too Hot to Handel fits into United Palace’s mission?

United Palace: Too Hot to Handel follows in our legacy of creating holiday programming in a mash-up like you’ve never heard before,” says to Mike Fitelson, the Executive Producer of the United Palace, “Like The Hip Hop Nutcracker, Too Hot to Handel is a fun reinterpretation of an iconic masterpiece that unites diverse audiences and is accessible to people of all ages.” Heather Shea, the Spiritual Director of the United Palace added that “Too Hot to Handel speaks perfectly to our mission of uniting people through spiritual arts, particularly during the holidays.” 

The United Palace is a beautiful cultural institution--see it in real life on December 15th at Too Hot to Handel with Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra! You can get your tickets here.

Marin Alsop: The Mind Behind 'Too Hot to Handel'


By Moses McGavin

This season, the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra, the Fort Washington Community Choir, and a slew of guest vocalists will be performing Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah, a Latin and jazz-infused adaption of Handel’s Messiah at the United Palace of Cultural Arts. Perhaps the only thing more exciting than this venture for the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra is the performance of a piece originally conceived by Marin Alsop, the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and an icon in the classical music world. In order to understand this conductor better, the WCHO takes a deeper look inside Alsop’s accomplishments, goals, and awards throughout the years.

A teenage Marin Alsop playing violin.

A teenage Marin Alsop playing violin.

Early Career

Marin Alsop was born October 16th, 1956 to two professional musicians. She began studying piano by the age of two, and began studying violin at the age of 5. After beginning high school at the age of 12, Alsop entered Yale University at the age of 16. She would later transfer to Julliard and graduate with a Bachelor of Music Degree in 1977 and her Master’s Degree in 1978, which were both in violin performance. 

After graduating, Alsop began freelancing in New York City, playing everything from the New York Philharmonic to Sweeney Todd. Shortly thereafter, Alsop began conducting studies with Carl Bamberger, and by 1981 was leading String Fever, a 10-piece string swing band (Swing Fever is still active today—you can listen to them here!) She would go on to find the Concordia Orchestra, a 50-piece Orchestra that mostly explores 20th century works. It was here that Concordia Orchestra conceived the idea for Too Hot to Handel. (And the Concordia Orchestra still performs as well! You can find them here.)

In 1989 Alsop received her major breaks in the classical music world. Alsop received the Koussevitsky Conducting Prize by Tanglewood for best student conductor. She would go on to become the Music Director of the Eugene Symphony Orchestra (a position she held until 1996), and Associate Conductor of the Richmond Symphony in Richmond Virginia. She then went on to win the Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center where she became a student of Gustav Meier, Seiji Ozawa, and Leonard Bernstein.

Marin Alsop and Gustav Meier. Alsop would succeed her mentor, Gustav Meier as the Director of Graduate Conducting at the Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University in 2015.

Marin Alsop and Gustav Meier. Alsop would succeed her mentor, Gustav Meier as the Director of Graduate Conducting at the Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University in 2015.

 In 1990, Alsop would make her debut at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. She would also accompany Bernstein to the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, where she would conduct Beethoven’s 2nd. You can see her performance here. In 1992, Alsop was appointed the Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California, a position she would hold for 25 years.

In 1993, Alsop was appointed the Music Director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Over the next 10 years, Alsop would accept prestigious positions such Creative Conductor Chair of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (1994), an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Gonzaga University (1995), the Conductor Laureate of the Eugene Symphony (1996), Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (1999), and Principal Conductor of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (2001), and recording a Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic (2004). Throughout this decade, Alsop recorded the complete works of Samuel Barber with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, won two awards from the ASCAP for her programming with the Colorado Symphony, and was awarded the Gramophone Magazine’s Artist of the Year and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Conductor Award, making her the first artist to ever win both of these major awards in one year.

Alsop was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Prize or “Genius Grant” in 2005 for “…her skill in making the unusual understandable, and her championing of contemporary music.” The MacArthur foundation continued that Alsop “defie[d] stereotypes and offer[ed] a new model of leadership for orchestras in the U.S. and abroad.”

She was awarded the Classical BRIT Female Artist of the Year Award and was nominated for a Grammy for her recording of Daghterty’s UFO with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. In 2005, Alsop was appointed Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra effective 2007, making her the first woman to lead a major orchestra at the age of 50.


At the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  Alsop Reheasrsing Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” for    #BernsteinAt100

Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Alsop Reheasrsing Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” for #BernsteinAt100

During her tenure at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alsop released one Baltimore Symphony’s first commercial recording since 1999 (2006), made her Carnegie Hall debut (2008), launched the educational program OrchKids, and extended her tenure at BSO until 2021.

For years, Alsop has honored her mentor Leonard Bernstein through a series of works such as recording Bernstein’s Mass in a critically acclaimed and Grammy nominated album, and curating a 9-month long Bernstein Project at the Southbank Centre (which she would later become the Artist in Residence for).

For years, Alsop has honored her mentor Leonard Bernstein through a series of works such as recording Bernstein’s Mass in a critically acclaimed and Grammy nominated album, and curating a 9-month long Bernstein Project at the Southbank Centre (which she would later become the Artist in Residence for).

In 2012, Alsop became the first female conductor to conduct the Last Night of BBC Proms. Since then, Alsop has returned to the Proms twice, being awarded Honorary Membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2014. Effective 1 September 2019, Alsop will be the first female conductor be be the chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Alsop continues to be a renowned figure throughout the classical music world, as she has broken boundaries with her skill, innovation, and vision. To hear one of Alsop’s great works come to life, get your tickets to Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah today!



8 Questions with Ashley Jackson, Harpist

In anticipation of our December 16th concert, Reverie, we interviewed Ashley Jackson about her musical life!

by Ariel Kurtz, Social Media Manager

Where did your love of music come from? Are there any other musicians or artists in your family? 

Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

Although there aren't any professional musicians in my immediate family, I grew up in a very musical household. Music was always on in the house, and we would often sing along to our favorite songs. My mother grew up playing organ in the black Baptist church, so I get my love for gospel music and classic soul from her. On the other hand, my father has countless jazz records and CDs, and listening to his favorite jazz station in the car with him on Saturday mornings on my way to music lessons is still one of my fondest memories growing up. My sisters and I, we all started out playing piano, and while my younger sister still sings, I was the only one who couldn't get it enough of playing music.

Why did you decide to play the harp? 

As I mentioned earlier, I first started out playing the piano, and while I loved the instrument, my curiosity and early attraction to classical music made me want to try different instruments. So I picked up the violin and harp at age 7, played all three until high school, before focusing on the harp. I liked right away the complexity of the instrument, the similarities to the piano, but also the fact that I could play the harp in orchestras, which, growing up, was my favorite thing about playing classical music. And still is.

What is your favorite part of being a musician and what made you want to pursue it professionally?

My favorite part of being a musician is a combination of the intellectual and technical challenges, while exploring the emotional content of a piece. And I think that is what has always motivated me to pursue it professionally – the excitement that comes when I have a new piece of music on my stand, whether it's a solo work, or a contemporary orchestral part. Figuring out how to make it work on my instrument, and then how to make it speak to the audience is why I love what I do. 

Do you have a favorite piece or composer?

This is always such a tough question since I'm often working on multiple pieces by different composers at the same time. But if I had to pick one, my favorite composer at the moment is probably Puccini. His writing for the voice is exquisite, and his orchestration is so rich in conveying what's happening on stage.

What do you love about Washington Heights? 

I love that there is really a community of classical musicians, probably unlike in any other neighborhood in Manhattan.

What piece of music fascinates you? 

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I certainly can't name just one piece, but the one composer that continues to fascinate me is Bach. Sometime during my graduate studies I vowed to play a piece by him every day. And while I haven't exactly kept that promise (LOL), I will often return to old piece in my repertoire at the end of a practice session, and I challenge myself to find either a new pattern, or voice, or way of improvising. 

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Seek out music that speaks to you, and surround yourself with warm, supportive colleagues also in the field. I think now, more than ever, there are many paths that a classical musician could take, and the one that will be the most successful is the one that is the most honestly you.

Is there anything that you would like the audience to know about the program for your upcoming recital?

Most of the pieces on the program were written in France during the turn of the century, and they reflect explorations into bringing to the surface certain elements of music that had been previously-deemed secondary: texture, rhythm. Because these composers wanted to change how music could make the listener feel. Debussy and Ravel are featured on this program because they were really at the forefront of this movement in music, a movement that had parallels in visual art. They were known as the Impressionists, and in this program we will be exploring those stylistic features.

You can hear Ashley perform with our principal flutist, Anna Urrey, this Saturday at 3! 

You can hear Ashley perform with our principal flutist, Anna Urrey, this Saturday at 3! 


Hear Ashley perform this Saturday at 3:00pm!  Click here for details. 

by Ariel Kurtz, Social Media Manager  
Contact Ariel

A Look Back: WHCO's 2nd Season

As we prepare for the upcoming third season of WHCO, we can't help but take a look back at all the memories and music we made over the past year. Ariel Kurtz, our Social Media Manager, put together this 'look back' to help us look forward to season three! 

Our Young Artist Competition Winner, Coco Mi rehearsing with our WHCO Orchestra, in preparation for the last concert of the 2016-2017 season!

Our Aelous Quartet (Nicholas Tavani, Rachel Shapiro, Gregory Luce and Alan Richardson) playing some Copland, Mazzoli, Wourien and Barber in January 2017.

Madeline Tucker (cello) was part of our Spotlight Series along with Ashley Windle (violin) in February 2017.


Our fantastic wind principals rehearsing for “The Music of the Americas” concert in March 2017.

Our awesome volunteers at our WHCO Jazz Fundraiser Concert in December 2016.

Nanci Belmont, a bassoonist at her Spotlight Series concert in April 2017.

Meet Nanci Belmont, Bassoon

We're excited to feature our Principal Bassoonist Nanci Belmont on our upcoming Spotlight Series concert! We asked Nanci a few questions about her musical life and how she came to play the bassoon.  

Ariel: Where did your love of music come from? Are their any other musicians or artists in your family?

Nanci Belmont

Nanci Belmont

Nanci: No one in my family is even close to being a musician or artist. My dad owns his own tile construction business and my mom is a secretary. When I was really young, I just really loved singing and was involved in a few musicals/choirs here and there. I didn't really know anything about musical instruments.

What first inspired you to play the bassoon?

It's not a crazy or profound story.... I joined band in 6th grade because my best friend was doing it (and we wanted to have some classes together). My band director was this wonderful woman who let us try all of the instruments at the beginning of the school year, let us choose our top 3 favorites, and then she would pick what we got to play. I was apparently the only one in the entire 6th grade who put bassoon down on their list! (I did have it as number 1, mostly because I thought it looked really cool, and was told that you could hear it in the Disney movie Fantasia)

What is your favorite part of being a musician and what made you want to pursue it professionally?

I think my favorite part of being a musician is the lifelong learning that takes place. Being involved in music means that there is always something to improve upon, or someone new to learn from. I love knowing that I'll be a different (and hopefully better) musician in a few years time than I am now. I pursued the career professionally, mostly for the love of it, and the idea of getting to do something fun for a living. Not having any musicians in my family, I didn't know what a career in music would look like or the crazy amount of work that would go in to developing the career, but I'm very glad I pursued it!

Do you have a favorite piece or composer?

I can't say I have one favorite piece or composer, but I definitely have my favorites. Beethoven and Stravinsky are definitely at the top of my composer list, their music (and particularly their bassoon writing) is so fantastic.

What do you love about Washington Heights?

There is so much green space! I live pretty close to Bennett park, Ft Tryon is not that far away, and the Riverside bike path is extremely accessible. I love to go running and read outside (when the weather is agreeable) so I was really grateful for all of these spaces when I moved up here.

Is there anything that you would like the audience to know about the program for your upcoming recital?

Prepare to hear a different side of the bassoon than you may be used to! I developed this program with the lyrical side of the bassoon in mind, which is in contrast to the "clown of the orchestra" reputation that the bassoon often has. The three pieces on my program represent lyricism from three vastly different time periods and geographical locations, and are some of my very favorite works to perform.


You can hear Nanci this coming Saturday at 3pm on our Spolight Series!  



By Ariel Kurtz, Social Media Manager  
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8 questions with Alexandros Petrin, Violin

Alexandros Petrin is performing on our 3rd Spotlight concert this year along with our Principal Bassoonist, Nanci Belmont. You can hear him on Saturday, April 22nd at 3:00pm at Fort Washington Collegiate Church. 

Ariel: Where did your love of music come from? Are their any other musicians or artists in your family? 

Alex: I was born into a musical family so it was natural for me to grow in a musical environment. My parents are pianists and from a very early age I was surrounded by sounds. Often they would teach their students at home and since my mom is in the chamber music faculty at the Conservatory I was fortunate to hear other instruments as well. I think that's where my love for music came from and what made my brother also choose a musician's life. My parents and brother are the reason I am here and have grown to what I am today.

What is your favorite part of being a musician and what made you want to pursue it professionally?

With the passing of years my concept of music has changed and it's something that will keep evolving in the years to come. One phrase that I keep in me forever is my father's saying "Music is between the notes." My favorite part of being a musician is to spend a lot of time with a piece and to be able to say something meaningful through my interpretation. No matter how long the piece of music is, I have to be able to grasp it and present it in such a way to the audience that it will create that special connection between us. And that's what I cherish the most about being a musician. 

Do you have a favorite piece or composer?

There is music I come back to and I definitely have all-time classics that will never fall off the shelf of favorites! But it really depends on the time period I am in. As Yuri Temirkanov once said: 'My favorite composer is the one I am playing at the moment', and that is true because one has to give himself totally to the music he plays at the moment. In the first three weeks of April, my mind and heart are focused on the upcoming WHCO recital where I have chosen pieces that I really want to share with the audience; therefore they are my favorites!

Well, is there a piece of music particularly fascinates you? 

At the moment, Kevin Puts's "Millennium Canons". To me, it is freedom; it makes you want to live life to the fullest.  (You can here a recording of Put's piece here!)

What advice would you give to aspiring young musicians?

Work hard and be open minded.
Listen and learn from your mistakes. 
Don't compromise.  

Is there anything that you would like the audience to know about the program for your upcoming recital?

The first piece in the program is by Washington Heights-based composer Kim Sherman. 'Invocation' is a beautiful piece for soprano, solo violin and string quartet. The quartet consists of Ani Bukujian, Michael Eby, Daniel Lamas and Kate Dillingham and Stephanie Leotsakos will be our soprano. The second piece is by my teacher and mentor David Noon who wrote the challenging 'Cadenza Variations' in memoriam of Pierre Boulez so I took the initiative to be the first to perform it. Copland's 'Two pieces for Violin and Piano' is undoubtedly the center of this recital;  and Kevin Puts's Aria can be summarized in one word: magic. I will be performing both pieces with the talented pianist Semra Amiraslan. The last two pieces in the program, Estrellita by Manuel Ponce and Besame Mucho by Consuelo Velasquez are the icing on the cake! Joined by soprano Nicolette Mavroleon and my parents Igor and Eirini, I hope that these songs will particularly speak to the Hispanic population of Washington Heights. 

Last but not least, I would like to thank the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra for allowing me to perform on their season and I hope that I will see many faces at Fort Washington Collegiate Church on April 22nd at 3pm!

Check out our event page here.  Hope to see you on the 22nd!


By Ariel Kurtz, Social Media Manager  
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Announcing the Winner of our First Annual Young Artists Competition

This year's winner: Violinist Coco Mi

This year's winner: Violinist Coco Mi

Monday, January 23, 2017 - New York, NY
Upon finishing a very competitive and engaging final round concert this past Saturday the 21st, we're delighted to announce that sixteen year-old violinist Coco Mi from Princeton, NJ has been selected the winner of our First Annual Young Artists Competition in partnership with Florian Leonhard Fine Violins!

Ms. Mi will receive a $1,000k scholarship and perform as the featured soloist on our May 20, 2017 concert.  Additionally, Florian Leonhard will loan her a fine instrument for use in her performance with the WHCO. Ms. Mi attends the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Program where she studies with Elizabeth Faidley and is the recipient of the Carl Owen Memorial Scholarship. She has performed in masterclasses with well-known violinists such as Sarah Chang, Ray Chen, and Jennifer Koh, among others.  When not playing the violin, Coco is a junior at Princeton High School in Princeton, NJ. She is also the leader of a community service program “Music Therapy” which focuses on doing musical activities with special needs students at her school.

From left: Samuel Rhodes, Philip Lasser, Anna Rabinova, Chris Whittaker

From left: Samuel Rhodes, Philip Lasser, Anna Rabinova, Chris Whittaker

We also congratulate our runners-up: 
2nd Prize: Chelsea Xia, Violin, 14, New York, NY, (receives $500 scholarship) 
3rd Prize: Alexandra Woroniecka, Violin, 14, Stony Brook, NY (receives $250 scholarship)
Audience Vote/Honorable Mention: Alexander Rohatyn, Cello, 17, New York, NY

The year the competition was open to violinists, violists, and cellists who either reside or pursue musical studies in the New York metropolitan area.  Our finalists were selected through blind pre-screening and semi-final rounds adjudicated by members of the WHCO. The judging panel at the final round included Mr. Samuel Rhodes (The Juilliard String Quartet); Ms. Anna Rabinova (New York Philharmonic); and Dr. Philip Lasser (The Juilliard School/European American Musical Alliance).

We are grateful to our competition sponsor, Florian Leonhard Fine Violins. for their support of our very first young artists competition.

And we thank all of our outstanding finalists who played a beautiful concert on Saturday evening.  We wish each of our participants the very best as they continue to passionately pursue their musical studies.  

Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra

Group bow from our finalists and judges.  Bravi tutti!

Group bow from our finalists and judges.  Bravi tutti!