By Kevin Kelley
There’s nothing wrong with the Frank W. Barr Auditorium, where Michelle Hislop, Melody Chen and Abbie McDevitt play their violins as members of Fairview High School’s symphony and chamber orchestras. In fact, the 60-year-old auditorium underwent a quarter-million-dollar renovation in 2009.
However, the three young ladies will perform Sunday afternoon at a much more renowned venue – Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Hislop, Chen and McDevitt are members of the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra, which traditionally ends its season of eight or nine concerts with a performance at the University Circle music palace.
Hislop and Chen, both seniors, and McDevitt, a junior, all take private violin lessons from Joan Ferst, the manager of the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra and also a member. Her husband, Robert Conquist, is the ensemble’s music director and conductor. Conquist is only the second music director in the orchestra’s 78-year history. Hyman Chandler, a Cleveland Orchestra violinist for 49 years, founded the women’s ensemble in 1936 and led it until his death at age 90 in 1990.
Ferst became so impressed with the three Fairview students’ abilities that she invited them to audition.
“We only take high school students who are experienced and advanced enough to pass the audition,” said Ferst, a Rocky River resident. Hislop, Chen and McDevitt are currently the only high school students playing in the orchestra, which has a membership of 70 musicians.
In addition to possessing excellent technique, the three have a good sense of the music, Ferst told West Life.
Hislop and McDevitt both began playing the violin in the fourth grade. Chen, who moved here with her family from China at age 13, said she began the violin in the sixth grade.
For their parents, the girls’ opportunity to play at Severance Hall is an indication that the money for the instruments and lessons was not a waste.
“They think it’s really cool,” Chen said of her parents’ thoughts on her playing at the home of the Cleveland Orchestra.
The dedication required to master the violin is not insignificant. Beside orchestra classes at Fairview High School, the girls spend 90 minutes each week in lessons and two-and-a-half hours at rehearsals.
Hislop and Chen first joined the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra when they were sophomores, so they’ve played at Severance Hall before. Despite their high level of achievement with the violin, neither plans to focus on music in college. Hislop plans to major in biology at Walsh University, and Chen will attend the University of Pittsburgh but is undecided on her major. But neither plans to stop playing her violin.
Julie Maskow, Fairview High School’s orchestra director, said she’s not disappointed that the girls won’t be pursuing music in college. Maskow said her goal is that her students maintain a lifelong love of music.
The Cleveland Women’s Orchestra 78th anniversary concert takes place at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Severance Hall. Tickets cost $10 to $35 and can be purchased by calling the Severance Hall ticket office at 216-231-1111 or online from the Cleveland Orchestra website at clevelandorchestra.com.