BRATTLEBORO -- "Make a noise of approval, if you think Stravinsky was a great composer?" asked Hugh Keelan of the 100 or so teen singers assembled before him at a rehearsal last week.
Noises of approval came ... lots of them ... and Keelan followed up with an exhortation: "Please, please deliver on what Stravinsky is telling us to do."
Point made, Keelan, the Windham Orchestra he conducts and the young singers ran through a breathlessly beautiful rendition of Stravinsky’s "Symphony of Psalms," a challenging but gorgeous piece that provides the dramatic finale to the program titled "Psalms & Fireworks," which the Windham Orchestra will present on Friday at 7:30 p.m., at Bellows Falls Union High School, and Sunday at 3 p.m., at Brattleboro Union High School.
Not merely the grand finale, "Symphony of Psalms" represents a grand collaboration between the Windham Orchestra and choruses from all four of Windham County’s public high schools -- Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Leland & Gray and Twin Valley.
"It’s absolutely fantastic," said Keelan.
The collaboration represents not just high musical ambition but another step in the Windham Orchestra’s continuing efforts to redefine its place in the community through evocative and meaningful partnerships.
"OK, Are you a community orchestra? Show me," said Keelan. "It’s a testament to the way this community lives an ideal of inclusion."
This specific collaboration grew out of conversations Keelan had with BUHS choral director Patty Meyer, who wanted her students to have the experience of singing a significant, 20th century piece of music with an orchestra.
"We decided the best thing in the world would be to throw the doors wide open," said Keelan.
The other choral directors -- Mary Westbrook-Geha at Bellows Falls, Ron Kelley at Leland & Gray and Sue Maddern at Twin Valley -- jumped at the chance.
Westbrook-Geha said her singers have embraced the challenge of singing Stravinsky and have really grown as a result.
Rehearsal last week, the first with all the singers from all the choruses and the orchestra, required some adjustment.
"It’s the first time they have to deal with the complete difference of an orchestra vs. a sympathetic helpful, on-their-side pianist. Then there’s this weird guy who they barely know waving his arms at them," said Keelen, self-professed weird guy.
By the end of rehearsal, orchestra and choruses had created some drop-dead gorgeous moments together. Stravinsky had a hand in it, too.
"The final psalm is a breathless hymn. It gets lost for words, it’s so giddy with praising the lord," said Keelan. "What you get is the direct experience of desperation at the beginning of a journey, and at the end of the journey, ecstasy and bliss."
It’s the perfect piece for those to overcome their feelings of Stravinsky-phobia.
"It’s dramatic. If there are fears about Stravinsky, then really a great way to find a new approach is to listen to how human and dramatic the story is," Keelan said.
Drama is a crucial element in the entire "Psalms & Fireworks" program, which also features Grieg’s "Holberg Suite" for strings, Mozart’s passionate "Susanna’s Aria" from "The Marriage of Figaro," and Handel’s rousing "Music for the Royal Fireworks."
Handel’s "Music for the Royal Fireworks" is a work of triumph, celebration and peace from 1749. The countless ambiguities in Handel’s writing provide a great degree of freedom and opportunity for performance and modern arrangement. Keelan has prepared a performing edition for the Windham Orchestra, which brings the piece alive for Southern Vermont in 2013. Firework displays, regal affront, public debacle, international incident, warfare and drama are all suggested in this magnificent work of martial glory and ensuing peace.
The spirit of collaboration with young people continues with Mozart’s "Susanna’s Aria," which features vocal soloist Brattleboro Union High School senior Aurora Phillips. To the accompaniment of strings, obbligato flute, oboe and bassoon, Susanna teases Figaro on their wedding night. Although intended as a trick, threatening betrayal, the aria reads as an expression of love for Figaro, of heartrending simplicity and directness.
"She’s incredible," said Keelan. "It’s a perfect match of age and role."
Phillips has studied voice at the Brattleboro Music Center with Kristen Carmichael-Bowers for six years, has performed in plays at the New England Youth Theatre, and sung in the BUHS Chorus, Madrigals, Jazz Band, and student-run a cappella group, Renegade. She will be attending Tufts University in the fall.
The string section of the orchestra opens the performance with Grieg’s "Holberg Suite," an imaginary dance suite evoking the mid-1700s from the point of view of a 19th-century Romantic nationalist. The music is alternately vigorous, charming and warmly expressive.
This project is supported in part by the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. To purchase tickets ($15, $10 seniors and students), call the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523, or visit www.bmcvt.org.