WESLEY CHAPEL — The excitement was palpable as students hopped off their school buses and streamed into the Center for the Arts at River Ridge.
"We’re packed, sold out," said the center’s director, Rick D’Onofrio, sporting a wide grin as he guided the chattering students into their seats while members of the Florida Orchestra warmed up on stage.
Before long, the lights dimmed, and the audience settled in. D’Onofrio gave a primer on theater etiquette. Then Florida Orchestra music director Michael Francis took the stage, motioning for the orchestra, then the audience to rise before launching into the national anthem.
The Florida Orchestra is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. But for most in the seats, this was their first time hearing the group.
Those are the kids the Florida Orchestra is trying to reach.
For a $7 ticket, students throughout Pasco had the chance to partake in the traveling educational concert program, which was held on consecutive days last week, at the Center of the Arts at River Ridge and the Center for the Arts at Wesley Chapel.
"An American Celebration," which includes an educational classroom resource packet for teachers to use in preparation for the concert, is geared to upper elementary and middle school students. The performance was immediately followed by a side-by-side concert for high school students, where selected students played along with orchestra members.
"The whole thing is totally about an educational experience for our students," said Tom Viking, director of arts for Pasco County schools. "We’re broadening their horizons, exposing them to other things."
Francis, the English-born maestro, was particularly engaging, integrating humor while quizzing students on the various instruments in an orchestra and introducing them to the works of composers such as Johann Strauss, Gioachino Rossini and John Philip Sousa.
"Sit back and relax. You can close your eyes if you want. If you fall asleep, don’t snore too loudly," Francis said, eliciting giggles before leading the orchestra in George Gershwin’s, Summertime from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.
Francis urged the students to listen for how different instrumentation can evoke emotions when weaved throughout a single piece such as Aaron Copland’s Rodeo or John Williams’ score for Star Wars.
"Music helps us to feel sad and lonely, and it’s okay to feel that way. Music helps us through that," the conductor said.
Some lucky students got the opportunity to wave the baton, during Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever.
Jacob Little, 10, who came dressed in a button-down shirt and bow tie for his first orchestral concert, was one of four students Francis called up to the stage at the Wesley Chapel performance.
"I really liked it," said Jacob, an e-school student who is learning how to play the piano. "It felt like I was really conducting."
His mom, Amanda Little, who plays a handful of instruments, was equally excited to share her love of music with her son.
"To come here was incredible. It was a very good opportunity that e-school and the (Pasco) school district made available. And it’s very affordable," she said.
About 80 high school musicians had the opportunity to play in the side-by-side programs. Francis stressed how to play in unison, the importance of articulation and how a conductor can structure or shape the music by speeding or slowing tempo.
Saima Sheikh, 17, a French horn player from Ridgewood High, said she had been practicing for a month leading up to last week’s concert.
"I’m super excited," she said. "It’s definitely an experience I’m going to remember for the rest of my life."
"It was really cool being here with some of the best musicians in the state," said River Ridge High student and field drum player Kyle Lopp.
"It’s great just to have them play side by side — to learn from professionals," said River Ridge High band director Chris Greco. "We will definitely take that experience back to the classroom."
The Florida Orchestra is scheduled to perform 14 youth concerts throughout the school year, said Erin Horan, the orchestra’s community engagement director.
"It’s very important for us to work with young people," Horan said, adding that the side-by-side concerts are particularly inspiring for young musicians. "(High school students) get to hear what it sounds like to be within the orchestra. It’s a very cool experience."
It’s sort of like letting young musicians have a chance to play baseball with the Yankees or the Rays, Francis said.
"They get to watch and observe and be part of an orchestra," he said. "It’s a very powerful experience seeing the connective power of everyone working together and the microscopic timing that goes into that."
The more people who experience that — whether on stage or simply listening in the audience — the better, Francis figures.
"Our boundaries are not dominated by the size of our concert hall, but our commitment to the community," he said, noting a schedule that includes free concerts in parks and hospitals throughout the Tampa Bay area, as well as the orchestra’s policy of making a limited number of free tickets available for children who attend the orchestra’s Tampa Bay Times Masterworks concerts with a paying adult.
"It’s well-known that music stimulates every bit of intelligence. It opens your playing talent, expressiveness even," Francis said. "It makes you a better person in a sure way."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.