How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

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Malibu High School orchestra musicians are applauded at Carnegie Hall in New York City, with Orchestra director Dr. Maia Zander on the conductor’s podium.

The Malibu High School orchestra is basking in the glow of quite an achievement—playing in the world-renowned Carnegie Hall. The by-invitation concert to the famed New York City venue took hours of practice, practice, practice at a time of great stress for many of the student musicians: Roughly a quarter of them lost homes in November’s devastating Woolsey Fire.

After practicing since the previous year, the 48 students who make up the MHS orchestra auditioned and were accepted to the Carnegie Hall Symphonic Series. Dr. Maia Zander, who is the Orchestra director, said they were “thrilled to be accepted.” Only 10 schools nationwide made the cut.

The MHS repertoire, including “Orion and the Scorpion” by Soon Hee Newbold, “The Faraway Place” by William Hofeldt and “American Reel” by Kirt Mosier, was challenging and, considering the ages of the performers, impressive. The eighth-through-12th-graders are only ages 13 to 18. Zander—who accompanied the children along with her husband; Dr. Hillary Weissman, the assistant principal; and 11 parent chaperones commented, “This is the best performance this group has ever achieved! 

“I could tell that every student was playing their heart out on stage,” she recalled in an emailed message. “But our students were exceptionally well-prepared, and something magical happened on that stage! Many of the kids didn’t get nervous at all, and they were able to feed off the audience energy to give a spectacular performance. I could not be more proud!”

Zander was contacted by email while on a well-deserved vacation trekking through Patagonia. In her 10th year teaching at MHS, this year has been especially challenging. With a quarter of her students suddenly homeless, she said, “The fire made everything more stressful. That has made everything more difficult for all of us, from the more complicated logistics that come with having so many displaced families to helping each other deal with loss.” Part of Zander’s condo complex burned as well, and as a board member she’s been swamped with the recovery effort. That, along with an exhausting schedule of preparing the kids for recent back-to-back concerts—Stairway of the Stars, an overnight competition at Disneyland, and a triumph playing one of the most prestigious halls in the world—Carnegie—had Zander on field trips for eight of 10 consecutive days.

Along with their musicianship, Zander wanted the community to know how well the students conducted themselves in what could have been a free-for-all in New York City. 

“Our students were model citizens who represented our school and community in a way that we can all be proud of,” she described. “They were also extremely easy to travel with, to the extent that even getting on and off the subway during rush hour with our group of 62 wasn’t a challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a more responsive group of young people—either on or off the stage!”

Parent chaperone Bonny Bolander agreed.

“They worked hard all year and I felt like they really came through with the chaos of the fire and the uncertainty the year held,” she said. “They travelled very well as a group, managing the subway system and walking all over NYC. I was incredibly impressed with the group on the dinner cruise. We were with a few other schools and after dinner they all got on the dance floor and had a great time together. It was wonderful to see their camaraderie and friendship.”

Senior Carina Marazzi is the concertmaster (first violin section leader) of the group. Marazzi lost her home in the November fire. The 18-year-old said the first thing she grabbed while evacuating was her violin. Many of her fellow orchestra students were not so lucky in saving their instruments. 

“Knowing how hard it was on me to lose most of everything I owned—and with the help, dedication and leadership of Dr. Zander, while virtually our entire town was evacuated and school was closed—some of the other orchestra members and I played at public venues in efforts to raise money for people who lost their instruments or the means for making our Carnegie Hall trip in March,” the violinist described. “We were able to fundraise enough so that everyone was able to participate in the trip.

“It was an amazing experience,” Marazzi continued. “The hall itself was beautiful and the sounds produced from the many different schools’ orchestras in a hall with perfect acoustics was quite remarkable and stunning when compared to playing in our home school theater. It was very exciting to play our own music in such a magnificent place, but additionally, it was inspiring to hear and appreciate the music of all the other bands and orchestras from around the country.”