Pouring their hearts into their biggest gig yet, the teenage members of the Washington area Flutopia Wind Ensemble earned a standing ovation after their debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Sunday evening.
But the success of their “A Breath of Fresh Air” performance was bittersweet for Flutopia’s ensemble of local high school wind players and for director Jenny Lapple, as they had dedicated their performance to Judy Lapple, Jenny Lapple’s mother and the group’s former director.
Jenny Lapple recently became the director after her mother’s death in August. An adjunct professor of flute at George Mason University as well as a private music instructor and member of several local musical groups, the younger Ms. Lapple now leads the 70 members of Flutopia as they carry on her mother’s passion together.
Judy Lapple founded Flutopia in 2000 after she had already built a children’s woodwind camp at George Mason University. Besides annual concerts at the woodwind camp, the members of Flutopia had become regular performers at local community events and at the George Mason University Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfax, Va.
“We always talked about me taking over the group one day,” recalled Jenny Lapple, a petite powerhouse of energy, “but it happened a little sooner than we had expected. These kids were eager to keep going, and so with their momentum I stepped in, and it’s been moving forward, and it’s been wonderful.”
These endeavors bore fruit and led to the Carnegie Hall performance. Distinguished Concerts International New York concert series had held auditions for student performers, and Flutopia was selected on the strength of a performance CD — a recording of the ensemble’s last performance directed by Judy Lapple.
“She’s been with us this whole time, in a sense,” said Jenny Lapple.
Flutopia member Jen Harazin said there was a lot of energy in the Sunday performance, and it had turned out great.
“It was a lot of fun and it took a lot of hard work, but in the end it was a really good experience,” said Jen, who attends Fairfax’s Robinson High School in Northern Virginia. “It was even better knowing that the composer of two of our pieces was in the audience.”
Composer Steve Reineke, who had written “Fate of the Gods” and “Heaven’s Light,” both of which were performed on Sunday by Flutopia, did indeed attend the Carnegie performance. After hearing about the ensemble’s plans to come to Carnegie Hall, Mr. Reineke contacted Jenny Lapple and not only attended the performance but also joined the group for the post-performance party.
Ed Austin, father of Flutopia performer Brandon Austin of Centreville High School in Northern Virginia, said that the performance was something he as a parent would cherish forever.
“For the kids, it was an opportunity for them to experience the big stage,” he said, “and will perhaps help them achieve and chase their dreams and aspirations of being in the music field.”
Described by one performer as “magical,” Flutopia’s success at Carnegie Hall has sparked plans for the teens to return next year. Samuel Zyman of Juilliard School of Music in New York City also attended the Carnegie debut, and is now discussing plans to compose an original piece for Flutopia to perform for its return to New York in 2012.
An especially poignant selection among the five pieces performed on Sunday was “Eyes Wide Open,” composed by Flutopia member Eric Jackson.
“Eyes Wide Open” was originally written for piano and flute, though after Judy Lapple’s death the high school composer rewrote it for the full ensemble. Eric said he wrote the piece for the late director as a way of thanking her for everything she had done both for him and for the other members of Flutopia.
“Judy was a mentor and kind of a second mom for all her students,” said Eric, who attends Georgetown Day School, “regardless of what her students were going through, whether familial problems or problems with relationships or friends or school.”
Eric said that the director’s death was a heavy blow, but being able to carry on her legacy through music gave him strength.
“It’s just so great that we’re able to perform this piece with full ensemble,” Eric said of his composition, “because it’s a way to show everyone how powerful a spirit she was.”
Member Olivia Staton said that everyone in Flutopia plays not just to perform, but for something deeper.
“I think everyone has a reason that they’re here,” said Olivia, who attends James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., “especially the music choices that Jenny chose. There’s a lot of emotion behind the music, because everyone has a reason why they chose Flutopia.”
Drew Witter, a junior at Robinson Secondary School, said that playing the French horn with Flutopia gives him a sense of belonging.
“I really like the people, and the music as well,” he said. “Because in regular bands, the horns have offbeats where we don’t have the melody, we just play the motor basically. So in the Flutopia music, we have a lot of really cool parts that we don’t usually get to play because bands don’t usually pick this kind of music.”
Even as they prepared for and celebrated their performance at Carnegie Hall, the thoughts of the Flutopia players are never far from Judy Lapple.
“She just had this ability to balance intensity — to pull from these kids everything that’s inside of them — with this huge heart,” said her daughter. “And that is such a powerful combination, and I think that’s what’s at the core of this group. They’re willing to give you everything and more, because you’re leading with this idea of a heart.”