Hillsdale Orchestra | Courtesy

Of all the pos­sible reasons to overhaul an orchestral program for the semester,

being selected to perform at a national con­ference is one of the best.

The college orchestra was selected to perform at the College Orchestra Directors Association’s annual con­ference at George Mason Uni­versity this Feb. 2 through 4, one of only two orchestras fea­tured from more than 300 member schools. The selection, made from a blind audition of concert recordings from the last two years, marks the first time the Hillsdale College orchestra will perform on a national stage.

“I’m thrilled,” Orchestra Director James Holleman said. “For me, this is the perfect group of stu­dents that I would like to take to some­thing like this. This orchestra has really reached a peak this year with balance between the strings, wood­winds, brass, and per­cussion. I feel that we’re at one of our strongest points in the past 20-year growth of this program.”

The 79-member orchestra will travel to Wash­ington, D.C., for a Friday per­for­mance of their own work, as well as attending master class ses­sions and a per­for­mance by the National Sym­phony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center.

“You couldn’t ask for a better way to go out, as a senior getting to play in D.C. with my friends,” senior vio­linist Stevan Lukich said. “That’s what I’m really looking forward to, is getting to expe­rience this with the friends I’ve played with in the last four years. This is a really cool thing for the orchestra to be able to do.”

Hosted by CODA, an orga­ni­zation founded in 2002 to connect college orchestra directors throughout the world, the con­ference has been a way for college-age musi­cians and their directors to perform together and learn from each other. With member orchestras from the United States, Europe, South America, and Aus­tralia, CODA is the world’s largest asso­ci­ation for col­le­giate orchestra directors, said CODA pres­ident Kevin Bartram.

Their annual con­ference often fea­tures orchestras much larger than Hillsdale’s, Bartram said: “Many of the groups who sub­mitted recordings include large insti­tu­tions and some from Europe. It is uncommon to accept an orchestra from a school the size of Hillsdale, as only two orchestras perform each year.”

Though their per­for­mance will be the highest pri­ority, Holleman said, the con­ference will also allow Hillsdale stu­dents to meet and rehearse with members of the Uni­versity of Tulsa Sym­phony Orchestra (the other orchestra selected to perform) in master class ses­sions for con­ducting stu­dents from George Mason, the hosting uni­versity.

Hillsdale was not orig­i­nally selected to perform in the con­ference, but when financial issues forced another music program to give up their spot at the con­ference late in August, Hillsdale was next on the list.

And though the orchestra had already begun rehearsing an entirely dif­ferent program for the fall semester, Holleman knew it was time to start again from the top, preparing a new 60 minutes of music for a national stage, in addition to their normal per­for­mance cycle, which included local con­certs and a per­for­mance of Handel’s “Messiah” at the end of the semester.

Holleman said he wanted to select reper­toire that would both high­light the orchestra’s strengths and introduce other college music directors to unique, yet approachable music.

“I wanted to put our best foot forward to focus on our strengths as an orchestra,” Holleman said. “But I also wanted to be somewhat edu­ca­tional in my approach, knowing that our primary audience is college orchestra directors from around the country.”

The planned reper­toire is a mix of pieces from per­for­mances over the last two years, including Giuseppe Verdi’s “Overture to Sicilian Vespers,” Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Ser­enade to Music,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide,” and Ben­jamin Britten’s “Four Sea Inter­ludes from Peter Grimes,” and the fourth movement of Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy.”

As a fea­tured soloist, Lukich also influ­enced the music selection, encour­aging Holleman to perform the “Scottish Fantasy,” a piece the orchestra per­formed two years ago.

“I pushed this piece because it’s one of my favorites and I thought the orchestra sounded great on it two years ago,” Lukich said. “It’s a very beau­tiful piece. It’s melan­cholic, it’s joyful. It has a whole spectrum of musical spectrum of emo­tions and colors of sound. You do get this sense of it being inspired by Celtic music without getting hit over the top of the head with it. It’s not like a jig, but you can get the lilting feel of the music.”

Returning to music from past per­for­mances will allow the orchestra to polish their musi­cianship on pieces that many stu­dents have already enjoyed per­forming, Holleman said.

“I thought it would be inter­esting to see what we can do with music that we have already per­formed, have digested, have come back to, and have tried to fine-tune at a higher level because of its famil­iarity, and to take advantage of the rehearsal time that we do have,” Holleman said.

Since the orchestra has focused pri­marily on their local per­for­mances and Handel’s “Messiah” this semester, this famil­iarity with the music will be important when they return to the pieces next semester. With only two weeks of class before per­for­mances, Holleman plans to have orchestra stu­dents return early from winter break for two full days of rehearsal.

Freshman harpist Colleen Trainor began rehearsing with the orchestra the week after the “Messiah” per­for­mance. The music isn’t easy, she said, and Lukich’s “Scottish Fantasy” selection is a special chal­lenge.

“The Bruch is a bit of a monster,” Trainor said. “But I think I can handle it.”

Of the four pieces that feature harp, Trainor is new to all but the Vaughan Williams “Ser­enade to Music,” which the orchestra per­formed in their October concert.

Despite this limited time to prepare for their first national per­for­mance, Holleman said he trusts his orchestra’s talent and expe­rience.

“We’ve already started at a higher level, but we haven’t had a lot of time because of our rehearsal schedule,” Holleman said. “I’m con­fident that with the amount of time we have before next semester, we will be well pre­pared.”

This lead­ership stems from a string and brass section filled with upper­classmen: “One of the primary strengths of the orchestra are our five senior first vio­linists. They were one of the strongest freshman violin classes we’ve had over the years. They’ve shown real lead­ership, and first violin really carries the reper­toire. We also have many senior prin­cipal players in the wood­winds and in the brass,” Holleman said.

But he has just as much con­fi­dence in the younger musi­cians; he said he planned a program that was heavier on harp knowing that Trainor is a “very accom­plished” harpist.

“This is chal­lenging reper­toire com­pared to what I expected in playing with an orchestra, but I’m excited,” Trainor said. “It has really pushed me to see so many people devoted to music.”

Lukich agreed that the support and expertise of his fellow musi­cians will bring the program together.

“It’s been really neat to see us grow in the last four years,” Lukich said. “I’ve seen people really raising the bar in the last year or two in being pre­pared for rehearsals. That way, Pro­fessor Holleman doesn’t have to be worried about fixing problems. He can focus on the musical ideas.”

Holleman said he is planning a concert in late January to give the orchestra a chance to rehearse in front of a live audience before they take the stage in Wash­ington, D.C.

“We’ve claimed for years that with a school our size, we have a very unique, quality orchestra,” Holleman said. “Now we get to perform on a national stage, and have some of that ver­ified.”

But for Lukich, the audience is less important than the music itself: “I’ve never done some­thing like playing with an orchestra in a place like Wash­ington, D.C., before, so in the sense of it being a new place and a dif­ferent, high-caliber kind of crowd, that’s a new expe­rience for me. But at some point in being a vio­linist I found out that the way to deal with nerves is turning it into excitement. Before every per­for­mance I think that what really matters is telling the story of the music. That’s what gets me through. And when I approach a per­for­mance that way, it doesn’t matter who the audience is.”