SAN ANTONIO — The season can end on a high note for the Brandeis High School Chamber and Concert Orchestras. Student musicians and their directors became the grand champions at the National Orchestra Cup – the best high school orchestra in the nation.
"The harder you work at something, the more you invest in something," Kevin Garcia-Hettinger said. "The more you're going to get out of it."
Garcia-Hettinger walked into BHS 13 years ago to help build the program. It's rewarding for him to achieve this accolade.
According to the orchestra director, 55 student musicians took New York City by storm inside Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in late March.
"Don't worry about the outcome. Worry about what I can do right now," Aidan Woods said.
Woods is a senior violist with the orchestra who approached the competition with a controlled mindset. He sees their group as a community of friends.
"You know everybody. You talk to everybody," Woods said. "It's really cohesive, and I've been in other orchestras, and you just like--don't feel that."
Garcia-Hettinger, often called 'Mr. G' by his members believes the music makes them gel.
"I think it starts and ends with music," he said.
He and assistant director Olga De Leon worked hard to get the students to and through the National Orchestra Cup. Their playbill was not easy: Dimitri Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8, Mvt. II Allegro Molto, Ernest Bloch Concerto Grosso No. 1 for String Orchestra with Piano Obbligato, Mvt. I, Pauk Hindemith Trauermusik, Robert Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129, Mvt. III.
"The kids have a passion for it. We all have a passion for it," Garcia-Hettinger said.
They would need all the passion they could muster. The musicians tried playing the Shostakovich at a performance in January, but it was hardly harmonious.
"We could get together sections and as individuals," Woods said. "But when we came together as a group, it was really tough to communicate across the orchestra."
The directors considered cutting the piece from their playbill. But the student musicians leaned in to make it work.
"This was our showstopper piece," Woods said. "This was going to be the one that, you know, blew the crowd away."
And it did. The young musicians walked away with top honors from the invitation-only competition, and two soloists won too.
"Viola is not like the star of the show," Ray Zhang said.
Zhang started playing in the fifth grade. The high school junior believes the viola is a more supportive instrument. His was a funeral piece at the competition, and he found inspiration from the season wrapping with his orchestra mates.
"It's like the last time I'm playing it, and then it's going to be gone," he said.
The most sentimental win came from Vincent Garcia-Hettinger, Mr. G's son. The Brandeis junior won a soloist award on his cello.
"It was one of the highlights of my high school experience," Vincent said.
The cellist said his father doesn't cut him any slack or grant him favoritism. He said the path to the orchestra's big win and his award had forged a special bond.
"I feel like I've gotten closer to him through orchestra and through music," Vincent said.
But he's quick to point out he's concentrating more on improving than his award.
"One of the really great things as a director in high school is you get to really cultivate relationships with students," Garcia-Hettinger said.
The directors and the members speak more of their relationships than music. Zhang doesn't see their trophies, one that will travel to next year's winner and one that marks the 2022 victory, as the earmarks of their journey.
"It feels underwhelming because we put in so much work at school, and that's like the real rewarding part," Zhang said. "Like knowing we worked really hard," he said.