The Creation of the First USA Public High School Baroque Ensemble . . .

DHS Baroque Ensemble
DHS Baroque Ensemble

At present the DHS Orchestra Program has grown four times its’ original size in the past 20 years since the hiring of Angelo Moreno in 2000, Director of Orchestras at Davis Senior High School. By 2008 the program had developed into 2 groups:

  • The “DHS Chamber Orchestra” a non-auditioned string orchestra including violin, viola, cello, Bass, at 55 students, and
  • The “DHS Symphony Orchestra” an auditioned full symphonic orchestra including woodwind, brass, percussion, and stringed instruments, at 75 students-making a total of 130 students between two groups.

The growth at the High School is contributed to the growth at the elementary school and junior high level music programs and the positive continuation rate of orchestra students from 7th grade to 12th grade. As the two orchestras continued to grow there came the need for a third orchestral ensemble. Like a Jazz band for a band program or a Madrigal Choir for a choral program the DHS Baroque Ensemble became a natural extension of the DHS Orchestra Program as well as the second audition orchestra at DHS. This group provides students the opportunity to focus on Baroque music, Baroque performance practices, and master technique skills on period style instruments in a smaller ensemble. The period style instruments allow the unique style of the era to be further developed making the overall performance experience more historically accurate and engaging for the student musicians. The DHSBE also allows orchestral students the ability to access a rich and diverse wealth of orchestral literature unique to the development of music as we know it today, which was not possible within the organization of the orchestra program prior to the creation of the group.

The DHS Baroque Ensemble was featured in several national publications including “Symphony Magazine-Online”, “Early Music Magazine”, “Strings Magazine”, “Teaching Music Magazine”, and the “California Music Educators Association-Online”, for its unique nature and the model it represents for what is possible in the development of other public music programs since the DHS Baroque Ensemble is the first group of its kind at the High School level in the USA.

Without the support of the school administration, district administrators, and the school board this new course would not have been possible. The district supported the course by passing the course proposal unanimously and allowing the DHS Music Department to implement the DHS Baroque Ensemble into the DHS Orchestra Program.  Unfortunately, there were no grants or monetary support from the district beyond teacher FTE. It costs about $12,000 to convert all the instruments and purchase the Baroque Bows for 20 violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, and two basses. Doing half conversions saved us from having to purchase all new instruments. I used the best instruments in the school district collection that had been donated over many years. The half conversion included: removing the chin rests, adding baroque tailpieces, baroque bridges, adding gut strings to all the instruments, and purchasing new music specifically for this ensemble. I also added Precision Tuners to all the instruments because gut strings have to been tuned frequently. I found that the students had a hard time getting perfectly in tune with the regular peg tuners. The precision tuners have made a world of difference. The money came from the parents and the many community donations made to our Orchestra Boosters over the years. Our Booster group financially allowed this new group to start off well equipped with period style instruments including a professional level John Phillips (1991) Harpsichord and style appropriate music. We have since acquired a wonderful Baroque Chamber Organ, which adds to the diversity of our continuo sound. The orchestra students earned the creation of this course and sealed the commitment of the School District with their continuously climbing enrollment numbers, commitment to the program, and love for playing orchestral music.

It should be noted that the DHSBE has received vital support from the UCD Music department and was inspired by UCD Baroque Ensemble directors Phebe Craig and Michael Sand musical mentors of Angelo Moreno. Routinely Phebe Craig generously shares her harpsichord expertise by coming to DHS to coach the harpsichord students individually and within the group rehearsal. The group is also privileged to have Richard Webb, former member of the Academy of Ancient Music, as a continuo coach for lower strings. Richard is also a wonderful artistic consultant and resource as well as group dynamics coach.

The group has collaborated with:

  • UCD Baroque Ensemble directed by Michael Sand and Phebe Craig
  • CSUS Camerata Capistrano Directed by Lorna Peters
  • UC Berkeley Baroque Ensemble Director Davitt Moroney
  • Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra members Carla Moore, Mia Silverstein, Robert Howard, Elizabeth Blumenstock
  • American Bach Soloists member Katherine Heater
  • Most notably in 2014 and 2017 the DHSBE was honored to have Rachel Barton Pine as our guest soloist
  • We look forward to a return visit by Rachel in June 2020

The DHS Baroque Ensemble made its debut on the main stage at the 2014 Berkeley Baroque Festival and is proud and honored to have been invited back to the main stage in 2017 and again this year for the 2020 Festival.

In June of 2017 the DHSBE accomplished its second major international tour, the first one being in 2014 to Italy for 10 days. The 2017 tour was 14 days starting in Vienna and ending in Italy. The group performed in historically significant Baroque Cathedrals major cities including: Vienna, Eisenstadt, Salzburg, Wattens, Innsbruck, Venice, Padua, Cremona, Lucca, Montecatini, Florence, and Rome. You can see videos from the tour here. The group plans to return to Europe in June 2020 for a 12 day tour to England, Belgium, and France.