Connections made at Mercer University led two Townsend School of Music alumni to perform with world-class artists on some of the nation’s most prominent stages.
In July, Double Bear Victoria Yrizarry performed at Carnegie Hall, one of the world’s most prestigious concert houses, with well-known Christian musician and composer Ken Medema.
Medema, who works with Mercer graduate students through a yearly conference called Prelude, invited Yrizarry to sing as a soloist on his cantata, “The Weaver.” She first performed the piece with him in Macon in 2017.
“It’s so much fun to perform, and I never ever thought I would sing it again, let alone at Carnegie Hall,” said Yrizarry, who graduated with a Bachelor of Music Education in 2017 and a Master of Music in choral conducting in 2019.
“And what’s really sweet is after we got off the stage at Carnegie Hall, Ken looked at me, and he said, ‘I hope we get to sing that again together.’”
Earlier this year, Ally Cohen was still a student at Mercer when she was asked twice by concertmaster David Kim to play violin at Verizon Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is regarded as one of the top five orchestras in the country.
Kim is a distinguished artist at Mercer’s Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, visiting Macon twice a semester to work intensively with students. Cohen had the opportunity to study under him before she graduated in May with a Bachelor of Music in violin performance.
“It was really surreal,” she said of her experience performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “They’re such seasoned professionals. Everyone in the orchestra is top notch. And they were all such kind people as well. From the minute I came, it was just really incredible and inspiring.”
‘It’s at Carnegie Hall’
Yrizarry, now the choir director at a middle school in Augusta, was ushering kids across the street during afternoon car duty when she received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. She didn’t answer it.
When she returned to her classroom, she listened to the voicemail, and it was Medema’s assistant. Yrizarry called her back immediately.
“She’s asking am I busy July 8-10? And I said no,” Yrizarry recalled. “And she said, ‘Well, we have a gig for you. … It’s at Carnegie Hall.’”
Yrizarry was shocked but game. In addition to performing “The Weaver” with Medema while she was at Mercer, she interacted with him at Prelude. Medema’s collection of musical works is housed in the Special Collections department within Tarver Library.
“He is just one of the most special people I know,” she said. “He can listen to someone’s story or even recap a full day’s worth of emotions and events and compose a song on the spot and improvise it. Every time he’s ever done that, everyone in the room is crying. He just has such a gift.”
She saw Medema during a rehearsal the day before the performance in New York.
“It was a really special moment because it was the first time that we had sung together again,” Yrizarry said. “It was music he wrote and just to be able to go and celebrate him that weekend was everyone’s goal. … Every little part, even the rehearsals, they meant so much more because they were in celebration of him.”
On the day of the concert, Yrizarry was ready.
“When we got into the dress rehearsal and I was looking out into the audience and seeing all the red seats, I was like, ‘OK, I’m here. It’s OK.’ And when I started singing, it just felt peaceful,” she said.
Medema’s assistant told Yrizarry to have fun during the performance, and she did.
“I worked hard. I did what I needed to do, but it was fun,” she said. “I tried to take in as much as I could of the experience while I was on that stage because I know that this is a blessing and such a unique and out-of-the-blue opportunity that happened to me.
“I didn’t take that for granted.”
Dr. Richard Kosowski, professor of music and chair of vocal studies, was Yrizarry’s voice teacher at Mercer.
“She was an exceptional student,” he said. “She was always a high-achieving student who really didn’t know what her full potential was when she came in. And so, over the course of her study, particularly in the four years of her undergrad, she discovered that she truly did have a special gift.
“We saw it first as a faculty, and then we encouraged that gift along.”
He said he was elated for Yrizarry to be invited to perform with Medema at Carnegie Hall.
“She’s such a special, special individual. She’s a great teacher, but more than anything she’s a truly giving soul, and when she sings, that openness that she has comes through,” he said.
Yrizarry said Mercer has impacted her career in a “huge way” and gave her meaningful relationships with mentors.
“The people have shaped me so much,” she said. “I’m forever grateful for all the people who poured into me when I was there and in some ways still continue to.”
‘I stayed up all night practicing’
Living in Philadelphia, Cohen grew up listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra. She first saw the orchestra perform in elementary school, and by high school she was going to concerts almost every week.
She looked up to Kim, who as concertmaster is the orchestra’s lead violinist. In high school, she sought out a private lesson with him because she knew of his connection to Mercer, which is where she wanted to go.
“It was so exciting to get to study with him and know him more intimately,” Cohen said. “He is such an inspiring teacher. He really expects the best from his students and gives you the tools to get there.”
Kim called on Cohen twice asking her to substitute in the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“Both times it was a Tuesday afternoon around 3 p.m., and he called me and said, ‘The rehearsals for this weekend’s concert start tomorrow at 10 a.m. … This is what the repertoire is. This is what you’ll be playing,’” Cohen recalled. “From then, I’d just be studying the score and practicing. I stayed up all night practicing both times.”
For the first concert in February, she played a piece by Russian composer Rachmaninoff and two violin solo works with prominent violinist Lisa Batiashvili, who Cohen has long admired.
The second concert in March featured Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).”
“It’s really technically demanding for violin, so to have to learn that in about 12 hours, I remember being quite nervous,” Cohen said.
The experience was well worth it, she said.
“It was really amazing to look around and watch everyone playing and as a student trying to learn from them and trying to emulate everything that they did — from how they used their bows and how they sat in their chairs and how they looked at the conductor,” she said.
Amy Schwartz Moretti, director of the McDuffie Center and Caroline Paul King Chair in Strings, was Cohen’s primary violin teacher at Mercer.
“Ally is one of the most dedicated, caring and thoughtful students that I’ve encountered,” Moretti said. “She works harder than anybody else, and it’s just out of her pure dedication to the instrument and to the craft. She challenges herself, and she rises to the occasion.”
The fact that Kim would call on Cohen to substitute in the Philadelphia Orchestra is a big deal, Moretti said.
“When you think about the Philadelphia Orchestra and that he’s calling a Mercer student in Macon, Georgia, to come substitute and play in the violin section, that shows David Kim’s respect for her and respect for our program,” Moretti said. “The fact that he would put a young person in that position — knowing that she’s going to do great and trusting that she’s going to do great — I don’t think there’s any greater accolade in the world.”
Cohen currently is in Vermont performing at the Manchester Music Festival. Next year, she plans to study with Danielle Belen, associate professor of violin at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she’ll pursue a master’s degree.
Cohen said Mercer made her the performer she is today.
“The whole experience at Mercer was really just amazing,” she said. “During my time there, I was able to perform with all different faculty members, and we got to play with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in our regular orchestra concerts.
“It’s just such a kind and welcoming environment, and I think it really fosters community and growth for all the students.”
Feature photos courtesy Victoria Yrizarry, left, and Ally Cohen
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