Paul Phillips conducts the Stanford Summer Orchestra, of which senior Allison Zhang was a member.

Q&A: Senior plays in 70-person Stanford Summer Orchestra, enjoys differences from high school orchestra

Paul Phillips conducts the Stanford Summer Orchestra, of which senior Allison Zhang was a member.
(Photo used by permission of Zhang)

Senior Allison Zhang was a part of the Stanford Summer Orchestra while she was there working in the Weissman research lab for a second summer.

The orchestra was led by Paul Phillips, the Gretchen B. Kimball Director of Orchestral Studies. Rehearsals were held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings (7:00-9:30 p.m.) in Dinkelspiel Auditorium from July 3 to July 26, and the concert was on July 27 in Bing Concert Hall.


Q: How did you hear about the orchestra?

A: I was at Stanford last summer, and Joseph Noh, one of the undergrads working in the lab with me, was in the summer orchestra last year. I remember how he always had to leave super early and rush off to rehearsal.  It seemed like a lot of fun and a big difference from our school orchestra, so I just wanted to give it a try this year.


Q: How was the audition?

A: The audition was June 28, and I was really nervous. My dad and I got there super early (to look) for practice rooms.

Online they give you a pretty good sense of the audition. You play a two-minute excerpt of a piece that you’ve prepared on your own and some scales, and then you sight read something.

(The audition) was in the conductor’s own office, which was pretty cool because I got to talk to him.  

Overall it went really well. I’m just happy that I was able to join the orchestra; I definitely wasn’t expecting to place very high, especially because there are a lot of violins.


Q: How did you place in the violins?

A: I’m in the middle of the (second violins). I think there are 18 or 19 violinists, and they split us pretty evenly.


Q: Were there other high school students in the orchestra?

A: Yeah. Since Stanford has other programs during the summer specifically for high school students, there were quite a few high school students.

At one point the conductor mentioned our age range is from 14 years old up to the sixties. The orchestra is open to the public, so some professors at Stanford and professional orchestra members actually came to play with us too.


Q: How big was the orchestra?

A: I think it was almost 70 people – maybe even low seventies.


Q: Was having less than a month to rehearse difficult?

A: We got our music that first rehearsal, and I thought since everybody was sight reading it, we would go really slow. But we jumped right into it that first rehearsal.

We sounded really good, but at that point I knew I definitely needed to work on this music a lot. For some songs, people had already played them in other orchestras or on their own, but I hadn’t.

I definitely wasn’t expecting such a good group of musicians, but it was a good surprise.


Q: How were rehearsals run differently than at SCDS?

A: Since each piece (used) different instruments, some people would be playing for only one or two pieces. So before each rehearsal, Paul would email out a timeline of what time we were going to start and end each piece and how long we were going to spend on it. That way, for people who aren’t playing in every piece, they would know when to come to rehearsal and wouldn’t have to just wait around.

I think for our school orchestra, especially when we’re approaching a competition or performance, dividing up our rehearsal time like this and trying to stick to it would be helpful. We can plan (for) the pieces that need the most work (to) get more time.


Q: Which pieces did you play, and which was your favorite?

A: We played Finlandia, Op. 26, No. 7 by Jean Sibelius; Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25 by Ernest Chausson (soloist: Aditya Chander); Norwegian Dances, Op. 35 by Edvard Grieg; and Symphony No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 5 by Alexander Borodin.

My favorite was the Sibelius, which has a really cool backstory. It was composed for an event honoring persecuted Finnish journalists because it was during the time when Finland was still under Russian rule.


(Photo used by permission of Zhang)
The Stanford Summer Orchestra prepares to take a bow at the end of their concert on July 27.

Q: What was the level of difficulty?

A: The pieces were way more difficult than other orchestra pieces I’ve played, but that wasn’t surprising – I mean, this is Stanford we’re talking about. The Borodin was about 30 minutes, which is definitely one of the longest pieces I’ve played. But everyone and all the parts really came together in the end.


Q: How was the concert?

A: I think we sounded really good at the concert. Being surrounded by 70 players is a huge difference from our 12-person high school orchestra.

It was a lot of fun. I had to change right before it, so when I was walking around in the lab, people were asking, “Allison, why are you so dressed up?” and I told them about the summer orchestra concert.

It was a great surprise when a couple people from my lab showed up at the concert. During intermission,  all the musicians were hanging out backstage, and the orchestra manager comes up to me and asked, “Are you Allison Zhang?” And was like, “Uh, yes?” And she told me there were some people waiting for me at the door, but the usher wasn’t letting them in.

I walked over there expecting to see my parents, but it was three people from my lab. We talked for a little bit, and then the usher got mad at us because we were being too loud and another concert was going on in a different room (of the concert hall).

That is super typical of our lab, and it explains us very well. We’re always laughing and having a lot of fun, and we’re really nice and supportive of each other.


Q: How was it juggling the orchestra with your internship?

A: There wasn’t much conflict because all the rehearsals were at night, starting at 7 p.m., and it was only two times a week.

It was a double-edged sword because on the one hand, it doesn’t really impede too much with the lab because usually I would leave at 6 p.m. or so, grab a bite to eat and go to rehearsal. Then on the other hand it’s not a lot of rehearsals, so there’s not a lot of time to prepare for the concert.

But overall, it wasn’t too bad. The summer orchestra rehearsals were specifically made this way so a lot of people could do other things as well.


Q: Did you get to know any of the other people in the orchestra?

A: My stand partner is actually another high school student. She’s from Cleveland, I think, and she was here with Stanford’s summer program doing research at an ophthalmology lab, which is really cool.

Lots of these people in the orchestra are here doing research over the summer. There was an undergrad from Canada and a couple Stanford grad students. The principal second violinist is a mechanical engineer grad student at Stanford.

I think it’s cool that there are all these people, and music might not necessarily be their one focus or priority, but we’re all hanging out in an orchestra.


Q: Would you do it again?

A: 100 percent. It was a lot of fun, not only to meet all these people who are such great musicians but to be able to play in an orchestra that is so different from what I’m used to. This is the kind of orchestra that I’d watch on YouTube or hear on the radio, but now I finally got to be a part of it.

—By Sarina Rye

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