When Philip Meisner was 2 years old, his mom, Kathleen Osterman-Meisner, carried him in a backpack while walking with her friend, Barbara Scowcroft, along the Snake River dike.
Osterman-Meisner works in the supplements department at Jackson Whole Grocer; Scowcroft is a violinist in the Grand Teton Music Festival and the Utah Symphony Orchestra. Last week Philip, who is now 14, performed in an orchestra Scowcroft conducted.
That brought both women back to the walk they took 12 years ago. For Osterman-Meisner it was also symbolic of the tremendous musical growth her son has made over the years.
“He’s progressed from a crummy little 5-year-old’s guitar to drums, to trumpet, to violin and viola, and he’s picked up the electric guitar too,” she said. “He just seems to have a real inclination for music.”
Philip was one of 31 musically inclined middle school students who performed in StringFest, a 20-year-old program sponsored by the Grand Teton Music Festival that brings Jackson Hole and Star Valley Middle School’s eighth-grade orchestras together for an annual practice and performance at Walk Festival Hall.
Scowcroft, who was tapped to be the music director and conductor for the World Youth Orchestra at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, has been conducting the StringFest orchestra for the past 17 years.
Working with a conductor like Scowcroft is a rare honor, but StringFest is not a select orchestra — students do not have to audition. The program is open to all students in Jackson and Star Valley’s middle school orchestra programs. Lisa Barber, Star Valley Middle School’s orchestra director, said that kind of accessibility gives her students an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone, both personally and musically.
“Hearing how other people do it, hearing Barbara’s wonderful musical ideas and incorporating that into a new group with new people — it’s great. They learn so much and it’s a great challenge to make all of those adjustments,” she said.
Strangers, at first
Before assembling on the stage at Walk Festival Hall at 10 a.m. the day of StringFest, the Jackson and Star Valley orchestras had not met one another, let alone practiced the music they were slated to perform together at 6 p.m.
But six hours of practice later, including a one-hour break for lunch, the two orchestras managed to come together, resolve some tempo issues, and lead the parents in the audience through a 30-minute performance of three classical pieces from Vivaldi, Boyce and Richard Meyer.
For Scowcroft the meeting of the schools is as much about performing on a professional stage as it is giving the students a distraction from their fast-paced daily lives. She said the day is about providing time and space to create.
“There’s truth to the fast pace of life and the expectations of these student’s parents,” she said. “I think having a place where you can have music and let that time and space be at a different pace is fabulously healthy for your whole being — body, mind, spirit, soul, everything.”
Scowcroft’s 17-year tenure as StringFest’s conductor has coincided with both her appointment as an adjunct associate professor at the University of Utah, and her role as the music director and conductor at the Utah Youth Symphony Orchestra. Working with StringFest is a welcome addition to her many roles as a lifelong music educator. She approaches working with the middle schoolers the same way she does a professional orchestra.
“I don’t want to change the way I conduct,” she said. “These eighth graders are smart — you can’t fool them. If you dumb it down, they’re going to know.”
This year Scowcroft gave the students two options for taking the stage: Walk out 10 minutes before the show and sit or parade out like a professional orchestra.
The students chose to parade.
For Julia McJunkin, a student from Jackson, that was the real deal.
“It felt really professional,” she said.
That type of treatment is the sort of “big city experience” that Vince Gutwein, Jackson Middle School’s orchestra director, said is usually not available to kids in small mountain towns. The music teacher has been working with StringFest for over a decade. He said sharing StringFest with peers from Star Valley — one of Jackson’s biggest sports rivals — gives his students a chance to build “cross-town” connections that will carry them through the rest of their school careers.
Even though the students usually meet for the first time during StringFest, Gutwein said that meeting opens the doors to a multiyear connection between the two school districts. Whether at state string clinics, district festivals or all-state competitions, students who continue with orchestra will keep bumping into each other for years.
“It’s a cool thing to network,” Gutwein said. “By the time they graduate, some of these students will have known each other for four, five, six years.”
Andrew Palmer Todd, president and CEO of the Grand Teton Musical Festival, said such regional connections are critical for students with a passion for classical music.
“If you’re a kid who likes classical music, that can sometimes be a lonely thing in Wyoming,” he said. “The idea of StringFest is to show that there’s somebody down the street who has a similar interest, and that can be a very comforting thing.”
Links to the community
Todd said programs like StringFest include public schools in Grand Teton Music Festival’s efforts to make the festival more accessible to the community, regardless of socioeconomic status.
“Jackson Hole’s a wealthy place, and that means people aren’t always going to feel welcome here,” he said. “We’re interested in anything we can do to break down that barrier.”
The Music Festival offers $15 tickets to locals for some shows, and free tickets for kids. It also hosts free family concerts in the summer and started an annual $40,000 scholarship program, the Donald Runnicles Musical Arts Scholarship Competition, to help students from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho pursue music degrees in college.
Kathleen Osterman-Meisner has taken advantage of those offerings in the past. She remembered taking her son to a performance of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” by Hans Christian Andersen. That show inspired Philip, who was 5 at the time, to start a band.
“It has been inspiring when he has heard music and it really starts to gel and click,” she said. “It enhances his style and musical awareness, so, yeah, that’s a real treasure here.”