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Pacifics Music in May hits 64

Hundreds of high-schoolers will flood Pacific's campus this weekend to learn and perform choir, strings and band

The Music in May festival was started at Pacific University in 1948 by former music education professor Richard Greenfield as a way to cultivate the talents of high school string musicians. Since then the event has grown to include band and choir students.

And every year since its founding, hundreds of student musicians, nominated by their high school music teachers, flock from all corners of the Northwest - Oregon, Washington and Idaho - and fill the residence halls at Pacific University to attend the three-day festival, sponsored by the music department.

This year, 450 high school students will travel to Forest Grove for a weekend of music May 24-26, celebrating the Northwest's oldest college-sponsored high school music festival in its 64th year.

'The primary purpose,' said Dr. Michael Burch-Pesses, Pacific's director of bands and director of Music in May, 'is to provide a good musical experience for high school students.'

During their stay, students receive private instrumental or vocal lessons, rehearse more challenging literature and practice playing in larger ensembles, all under the direction of three professional out-of-state conductors.

Students will perform a grand finale concert on Saturday, May 26 at 3 p.m. in the Stoller Center on the Pacific campus.

When it comes to selecting conductors for Music in May, Burch-Pesses said he looks for people who not only have good reputations, but who know how to teach. 'We want to bring the best conductors and teachers we can find,' he said.

This year guest conductors include Stephen Czarkowski, conductor of the Apollo Chamber Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; Elena Sharkova, director of the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale in San Jose, Calif.; and A.G. McGrannahan, director of bands at the University of Reno, Nevada.

'The secondary purpose [of Music in May],' said Burch-Pesses, 'is for us to identify students we want to attract here.' Most, if not all, of the 23 Pacific University mentors designated to guide high school juniors and seniors (and the occasional sophomore and freshman) through their stay at Music in May were concert participants when they were in high school.

'I always knew I wanted to teach,' Burch-Pesses said, but his career began with music. In 1962, he avoided being drafted into the Army by auditioning to play music in the Navy. There, his four years of enlistment turned into 33.

'I was having such a good time as a Navy musician that I decided to stay in,' said Burch-Pesses, who plays the French horn. Under the G.I. Bill, he earned his bachelors, masters, and doctorate degree in conducting and was a Navy band master until he retired and took a teaching position at Pacific in 1995.

Though it took him a little time to transition from a military life in Maryland to a life in higher education in Oregon, he says his work is essentially the same - making music, interpreting music, teaching music and conducting - except that he is teaching college students instead of full-time, professional Navy musicians.

'To watch all these individual students rehearse together for two-and-a-half days and become three cohesive units that have taken music they've never seen before and present at a professional level concert' is the best part of the program, Burch-Pesses said.

As a musician, Burch-Pesses always learns something new by watching the guest conductors.

'As an educator, that's what we live for: [students who] grow and mature musically,' said Burch- Pesses. 'And that's what takes place at this festival.'