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Carnegie Hall awaits at end of musical rainbow

The Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra will perform at one of the world's great music halls.

By MICHELE MILLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

[Times photo: Thomas Goethe]
Zephyrhills High senior Anna Merlak, 18, at a rehearsal with the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra.
For 18-year-old Anna Merlak, it all began with a wistful thought uttered to her sister seven years ago while the two were registering for middle school. "I saw this poster for the school band and I said, "I wish I was in band,' " said Anna, "I guess the registrar overheard me, and she signed me up."

Now, seven years later, Anna appears to be well on her way to realizing her dream of becoming a professional musician.

The Zephyrhills High School senior has long excelled with the oboe in her schools' bands. After two years of playing with the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra, she was honored to be asked to substitute for three performances in November for the Florida Orchestra. There are the upcoming auditions she has scheduled for Juilliard as well as the Manhattan School of Music, along with the one recently completed for Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

In June, Anna, along with Pasco teens Nick Demasky, a flute and piccolo player from Port Richey, and Alexandra Ramos, an oboe and English horn player from New Port Richey, will perform in what many consider one of the best concert halls in the world.

Carnegie Hall is the upcoming venue for the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra -- the culminating performance of a year of hard work for some 63 young musicians throughout the Tampa Bay area.

This year's busy schedule has included various concerts, practice sessions with visiting conductors such as Anton Coppolla and an outreach program with Metropolitan Ministries.

The Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra, which will be featured along with the Etowah Youth Orchestra from Gadsden, Ala., and the New England Symphonic Ensemble, was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall by MidAmerican Productions, a company that brings musicians together to perform at various venues throughout the world. The invitation to Carnegie Hall was based on recommendations from other directors, said Denise Travers, executive director of the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra.

"It's a great undertaking -- it's a big project," said Travers, adding that while a few backed out of the trip after the Sept. 11 attacks, most members will be making the trip to New York City along with chaperones and their conductor, William Wiedrich.

"We've had to deal with the concerns of some parents not wanting to go because of Sept. 11," Travers said. "I think as time goes on, the kids are feeling more courageous. It seems even more important to go now.

"The kids are really looking forward to it," said Travers, adding that some are wanting to pay a visit to ground zero. "We'll be bringing a lot of kids who have never flown before or been out of the state -- a lot of kids haven't been to a big city. That alone is something, but playing at the most famous concert hall at their age is really extraordinary."

And how.

"I'm very excited," said Anna, "It's something I'll probably never get to do again."

"Carnegie Hall -- wow," said Nick Demasky, "Basically this is like my high point right now -- it's like the most important thing I've done so far."

Nick chose to play the flute as a third-grader because "it was one of the last instruments they had available." Like Anna, the Gulf High School sophomore is striving toward a career as a performance musician. "I'd like to perform in orchestras -- perhaps conduct in orchestras," he said.

For Alexandra Ramos, the Carnegie Hall concert will be the highlight of her senior year. She's been struggling with balancing her five advanced placement classes at Ridgewood High School, her upcoming graduation and college applications. She wants to be a cinematographer. "This," said Alexandra, "is what I've been looking forward to most this year."

Orchestra conductor Wiedrich, shares his young musicians' enthusiasm. His day job has him conducting the orchestra at the University of South Florida, but the Tuesday night rehearsals and concert performances with these youngsters at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center help revitalize him.

"I get to work with a group of some of the most special young people in this area. It's a supreme joy for me to come work with them," Wiedrich said.

Among the pieces his young orchestra will play at Carnegie Hall are, Bolero, The William Tell Overture, West Side Story and three dances from On the Town.

"If anyone thinks the arts in this area are dying with the youth -- they should come sit in Ferguson Hall some Tuesday night or on a Sunday afternoon," said Wiedrich.

Or go to Carnegie Hall on June 10.

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