Music in May
Crowds of high school students are in town preparing for one of the longest-running high school music festivals in the country, right in the heart of Forest Grove.
Pacific University's Music in May, the largest endeavor the music department holds each year, showcases some of the best student musicians from more than 170 high schools.
Every year since its founding, hundreds are nominated by their high school music teachers and flock from all corners of the Northwest — including Oregon, Washington and Idaho — filling the residence halls at Pacific University to be a part of the three-day festival.
Beginning Thursday, May 23, more than 500 participants spend time with guest conductors to rehearse and prep for the finale concert on Saturday, May 25. About 300 of the students are in choir, 170 students in band and 80 in the orchestra.
Michael Burch-Pesses is director of bands at Pacific University. He teaches conducting, music education and MIDI technology and has overseen Music in May for 23 years.
"The overall ability of the students who have come has been getting progressively better with each year," Burch-Pesses said. "As time has gone on, the difficulty level of the music has gotten greater and that means the ability of the students has increased."
"I am always thrilled by the students who come and their work ethic. They arrive having not known each other and have not worked with the conductors before, and at the end of two days of rehearsal, they are ready to put on a big concert," he said.
The university's 71-year tradition has carried on since the program began in 1948, after music education professor Richard A. Greenfield wanted to show what public school string musicians could do.
Pacific University has a longstanding history of supporting music education. It hosts programs such as its Music Education Project, an after-school program for students ages 5 to 18 to learn to play instruments taught by Pacific undergraduates. Since 2011, the Pacific's String Project has brought instruction to elementary, middle school and high school students for the violin, viola, cello and double bass.
Music in May stands out because it goes beyond what other high school music festivals do, Burch-Pesses said.
"Very few festivals have band, orchestra and choir included," he said. "It is always a band festival, or a choir festival. We include all three."
Music in May receives twice as many applications as it can accept because the university only can accommodate a certain number of students.
"It is a terrific opportunity to play new music that (students) never played before under a nationally known conductor," Burch-Pesses said. "It is not boring for the students who are experienced and any student who wants to have an experience in a larger ensemble that perhaps they don't have in their high school band, I would encourage them to try out Music in May."
Many students come from small schools, with 30 people or fewer in their band and choral programs.
"We have the cream of the crop of the music students at this university to serve as mentors for these people, and they are in good hands," Burch-Pesses said.
Burch-Pesses selects conductors who are excellent musicians but also know how to work alongside high school students, he said.
This year, guest conductors include James Mick, an associate professor of music education at Ithaca College in New York; Gary Kent Walth, the director of choral music studies at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse; and Mark Walker, the director of bands at Troy University in Alabama.
"What we like to do is invite people with a national reputation and somebody who is well known as a clinician and someone who is an excellent rehearsal conductor," he said.
More than 1,000 people attend Music in May's final concert, which is open to the public at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at the Stoller Center on campus. Tickets are $8 (adults) and $6 (students/seniors) and are available at the door.
"The energy level is always very high, and the concert is always a smash," Burch-Pesses said.
By Janae Easlon
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune971-762-1166
Follow Janae at @Janae_Easlon
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