Think your only option to catch a word-class orchestra performance is to hop on the 101 and head to Los Angeles? Think again. In fact, think hyper-local: Ventura High School lays claim to the only Grand National Orchestra-winning program this side of Texas and, yes, that’s a big deal.

A benefit concert featuring the award-winning orchestra will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 18, in Ventura.

Sam Coats, the principal bass player for the double basses in string orchestra. Photo by Izzie Clark, The Cougar Press

Paul Christopher Hunt, instrumental music director, assisted in re-founding and co-directing the Ventura Youth Symphony and has been with Ventura High School since 2009. Since, Hunt has transformed the symphony into a multi-award-winning, national championship- and honors-receiving powerhouse, putting the entire state of California back on the musical radar.

Hunt injected his love of music into the school’s program, promoting passion and lifelong interest in music into his students. Hunt’s own interest in music began in the second grade with the tried-and-true recorder and choir. In the sixth grade, Hunt picked up his primary instrument, the trombone.

“My parents tell me that whenever I could, I would grab the headphones and listen to records and play on any piano within reach,” said Hunt, naming his favorite musical artists: his former tutors Bill Booth and Andy Malloy alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Mozart and Morrissey.

When Hunt came aboard at Ventura High School, there were four performing ensembles, including a wind ensemble, string orchestra, concert band and jazz band. The program was small, says Hunt, but the faculty believed that the program would grow as sections were added. The Honors Wind Ensemble, a University of California-approved course, came next; and over six years, the ensembles began winning “superior” distinctions at performances. In 2015, the school received what would be the first of several invitations thus far: to the Nationals in Chicago, where the Wind Honors and String Orchestra received Superior marks; and in 2016, the Wind Honors received an invite the Grand National Adjudicator’s Invitational in Tennessee. In 2017, the Wind Honors and the String Orchestra again received an invite.

The Grand National contest is open to any instrumental group that has received a superior performance rating at district, regional or state festivals in three consecutive years. This was a first for the school, and a first for the state in over 18 years.

Hunt credits this to the high-level pieces the orchestra performs.

“The music is exciting and I pick stuff I think they and I will like. They are playing stuff that is introduced usually at the college or professional level,” said Hunt. “They get to premiere works that are brand-new or rare. It is exciting when everything comes together in a piece and you get to make musical art.”

A GRAND NATIONAL PERFORMANCE

Honors string orchestra and honors wind ensemble at a national competition in Chicago in April.

In April of 2016, the Ventura High School Wind Ensemble traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to perform in the Grand National Adjudicators Invitational, also known as the Dixie Classic, one of the most prestigious concert band and orchestra festivals in America. The ensemble received the highest marks possible.

In April of this year, the ensemble traveled to Chicago to compete in the 2017 National Adjudicators Invitational for the third year in a row, again receiving the highest marks possible. For these invitations to arrive, it took six years of hard work and reputation building.

Hunt says that Ventura High School’s Wind Honors Ensemble and String Orchestra are the only ensembles of their kind to receive an invitation to the Grand Nationals in California in over 18 years, which he credits to performing professional-level music rather than music of standard difficulty expected for high-schoolers.

For six years, the Wind Ensemble Honors group earned the “superior” ratings on Division VI music, which is music rated at a difficulty for collegiate or professional-level musicians. Only after six years did the ensemble receive an invitation to the Grand Nationals in Chicago in 2015, having earned 92 percent or above superior ratings.

The Wind Ensemble followed the same path, earning 99 percent duperior ratings. Each time, Hunt says, the testing becomes more rigorous as professionals and composers grade the students against how the pieces they play would be judged if played by professionals themselves.

“[It’s] like expecting the Dallas Cowboys out of high school students and scoring them as such,” says Hunt. “Both ensembles have always performed some of the toughest music written; and at those festivals, their music was definitely some of the most technically challenging stuff ever written.”

Hunt says that other music instructors expressed to him that they are pleased to see California hasn’t fallen off the map and that the Ventura High School program offers a ray of hope for the future.

“As the past few decades have shown, California has disappeared off of the music map in many ways,” says Hunt. “It was important to let other parts of the nation know that California still has some outstanding student musicians.”

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

The award-winning 77-piece orchestra, consisting of a 45-piece wind ensemble and 32-string orchestra, has taken home many distinctions. In 2014, the orchestra received the highest level of individual rating as well as first place at the Music in the Park festival in San Francisco while performing at the highest difficulty level.

Many current and former students recall what it was like, and what it is like, to perform at such a high level for the Ventura High orchestra.

Ventura High School alumni Trisha Merete has been playing the flute for nine years, citing one of her greatest inspirations, flautist Emmanuel Pahud, who she says she “fangirls” over in a “respectable manner.”

At Ventura High School, Merete says, Hunt forced her out of her musical comfort zone since her middle-school days, which she credits for making her a better musician.

“I despised him during my first year, but now that I look back on it, he was helping me grow as a musician,” said Merete. “I was so frustrated during my first year because I couldn’t understand what was being given to me and I didn’t know how to ask for help. Once I had survived my freshman year, my passion for music had continued to flourish with each passing year.”

Merete is now the principal flautist at Ventura College with plans to transfer to a university to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music performance or education.

“I hope to keep playing throughout my life because music, though it is ever-changing, has been the one thing in my life that remained constant,” she says.

Senior Cameryn Boggio-Shean is a cellist and plans to continue her musical training after graduating in 2018. Her love of music came at an early age.

“At first, I was dead-set on playing the string bass, but as soon as I actually heard someone play the cello in sixth grade, I fell in love with it,” says Boggio-Shean. “It has been the love of my life ever since.”

A theme runs through the Ventura High alumni and current students in their love for the 20th century Russian composer and pianist Shostakovich. Shean notes that her favorite of his works is Cello Concerto No. 1, which she plans to perform at the Ventura High School spring concert. Her favorite cellist, however, is János Starker, a Grammy award-winning Hungarian-American artist who passed away in 2013.

Even after graduating, Boggio-Shean supposes that music will forever be with her.

“I don’t think music will ever cease to be an integral part of my life,” said Boggio-Shean. “I intend to pursue a minor in music (even though my major is in the biological sciences). It is impossible to be a perfect musician, and that’s part of what fascinates me about music.”

On Hunt, Boggio-Shean says that his tutelage has been inspiring.

“Mr. Hunt really helps us envision our full potential, and doesn’t let us be satisfied with being ‘decent’ or ‘good enough.’ Being part of such a strong and dedicated group of individuals is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Senior Julienne Cormier echoes Boggio-Shean’s musical history in that her first choice of instrument wasn’t what she ended up with. Originally wanting to play the saxophone like her father, Cormier transitioned to the bassoon at the behest of her middle-school instructor, who was in dire need of a bassoonist. Thankfully, Cormier enjoyed the bassoon and has been playing the instrument ever since.

At the 2016 Grand National Adjudicators Invitational, Cormier and the Ventura High School Wind Ensemble performed Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, receiving a superior rating, the highest awarded.

“We had worked so hard on it, and in the beginning it seemed impossible. In the end we played it way faster than planned, due to our nerves, yet we still kept it together like a team,” said Cormier.

Cormier would like to pursue a career in arts administration, whether managing an orchestra or professional ballet company, and she credits Hunt with giving her the skills needed to do so.

“I have learned things like how to treat and respect a boss or how to behave appropriately in an interview or audition, small things that are actually really important,” said Cormier. “Under his instruction I have not only grown immensely as a musician, but as a person who has direction in life.”

Alumni McKenna Sullivan’s instrument of choice is the French horn, though she’ll always have interest in the clarinet. Her favorite compser is Nikolai Tcherepnin, who studied under another of Sullivan’s favorites, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, both Russian. Sullivan appreciates that Tcherepnin produced “quality over quantity.” Sullivan performed Tcherepnin’s Horn Quartet in her senior year at Ventura High with the horn section, which she recommends listening to — it’s “absolutely beautiful.”

“There is a huge conscious effort you have to put in as a musician to turn the notes on the page into emotions that can be heard by an audience. It never becomes an ‘easy’ thing to do; you must always be listening to the orchestra around you, watching the conductor in front of you, reading the music on the page, and playing the piece with the intended emotions.” said Sullivan.

On Paul Hunt, Sullivan says that his is the only class she would return to were she to magically become a Ventura High student again.

“Everyone in the music department was treated like competent young adults rather than clueless teens, and it made a huge difference in the way we interacted with each other and carried ourselves,” said Sullivan. “We felt more empowered, respected and valued because of this, and it reflected in our school life, personal life and practice habits.”

Sullivan received a $10,000 annual scholarship to play horn at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, but after losing her dad in 2016, transferred to Santa Barbara City College, where she continues to play with Westmont’s Orchestra and Brass Ensemble. She also tutors with beginning students and plays with garage bands here and there.

“Some of my main goals involving horn are to expand my knowledge and understanding of music beyond the classical sense, inspire other people to begin learning instruments, and to continuously build bonds and better my abilities for as long as I can hold my instrument,” says Sullivan.

The Ventura High School Music Program will present its Fall Benefit Concert on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. at the VHS Auditorium, 2 N. Catalina St., in Ventura. $10. For more information, visit www.venturahsmusic.org.