Baylor Symphony Orchestra wins American Prize second year in a row

Stephen Heyde conducts the Baylor Symphony Orchestra during the Flemish Fortnight closing concert at Jones Concert Hall. The orchestra recently won the American Prize in the college/university orchestra division. Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

The Baylor Symphony Orchestra has been named the American Prize winner in the college/university orchestra division for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, the Baylor Wind Ensemble took second among college and university wind ensembles.

The American Prize is a competition series that awards musicians in several categories, including conducting, voice and opera. The nonprofit organization awards cash prizes to its finalists along with its prestigious title. Baylor Symphony Orchestra placed above the acclaimed Peabody Symphony Orchestra and Western Michigan University Orchestra programs in the competition.

“It’s kind of like winning the national championship for orchestra,” said Stephen Heyde, the orchestra’s director. “We’re very gratified to win it back-to-back. It shows hard work pays off.”

La Porte graduate student Lindsay Smith, who is working toward her master’s in performance studies and plays horn in the orchestra, said she didn’t even know the symphony had been entered in the competition.

“I only found out we’d entered when we won,” Smith said. “Honestly, I wasn’t surprised when I found out. We always have a high [performance] standard.”

The Baylor Symphony Orchestra is the university’s elite orchestral performance ensemble. Competitive auditions take place at the beginning of each semester, and members practice three times every week. They may rehearse a piece for six months before performing it.

“We’re going to play [a piece] expertly, as the composers would have wished it to be played,” said Waco senior Mia Orosco, who plays the violin and is the orchestra’s concertmaster.

The orchestra performs extensively, in places as far as Belgium and Costa Rica and as near as Baylor’s Jones Concert Hall. While a part of the orchestra accompanied the Baylor Opera Theater in last week’s production of “Die Fledermaus,” the next performance by the full ensemble will be March 3 in Jones Concert Hall.

Heyde has been the symphony’s director since 1984, when he stepped into the shoes of the program’s founder, Daniel Sternberg. Heyde said he has seen the orchestra flourish tremendously since he began his directing role, in large part due to the support of university administration and the involvement of students.

“When I came, the orchestra was much smaller and much less advanced,” Heyde said. “It’s been a team effort by students, teachers and administration over the years to make it successful, and we’ve made real progress in the last three to four years.”

While effort and discipline have enabled the orchestra’s successful American Prize bids, Heyde said what is more important than prizes and prestige is the camaraderie that develops among the orchestra’s young musicians. Heyde recalled in particular the moment that he and his musicians heard of the Challenger disaster in 1986 while driving to a concert in Fort Worth. Before they took the stage, the students were able to reflect together on the deaths of those aboard the space shuttle.

Orosco said being part of the orchestra has been the most influential part of her career as a musician, in large part because she gets to perform alongside students who are equally as passionate about music as she is.

“The most significant piece is the relationships and friendships that we’ve developed with students over the years,” Heyde said. “Dozens have written back about their experiences with the orchestra.”

Smith said she has found a community in the collaborations with her fellow musicians.

“Music brings people together in unique ways. It’s just an enjoyable experience being part of that community,” Smith said. “I just love the orchestra at Baylor.”