By Rachel Cromidas, AB'11

Opera immediately excited my interest. It just grabs me.”
—Kirsten Paige
AB'11

The broad musical perspective that third-year Kirsten Paige gained from her orchestra’s winter tour of China began with her fellow musicians in the bass section.

Seated around Paige in the double bass section of the World Orchestra were students from Belgium, Colombia, Brazil, Spain, Slovenia, and Italy. Together they puzzled over musical scores, managed their way through an eight-city tour, and even found time for a New Year’s Eve jazz jam with other musicians in a hotel lobby.

Their success in melding diverse voices should serve Paige well as she pursues her BA in Music History and Theory. After three fast-paced weeks of touring, including stops at the Great Wall and a performance for the Chinese prime minister, Paige found lessons to apply in the classroom as well as the recital hall.

“The group taught me that there is really an infinite number of ways of approaching musical problems, both performance-oriented and theoretical,” Paige says.

At UChicago, Paige is combining her interest in music theory and history—especially opera—with a passion for music performance that started at age 10, when she began playing bass. She auditioned in January 2009 for the World Orchestra, a group of 75 musicians aged 18 to 28. Less than a year later, the students met and rehearsed for a week before embarking on their tour along China’s coast, including stops in Shanghai and Beijing.

Lessons from all over the globe

As one of five American students in the group, Paige learned the universality of music, whether during rehearsal, concerts, or the group’s impromptu jam sessions.

“It is unlike any other orchestra that you could find anywhere,” Paige says. “Professional musicians have been playing for decades and already have their individual styles. But everybody in the World Orchestra is a student, and still developing in this way.”

While touring through the winter holidays, the orchestra’s revelry always led to music.

“A couple of students were really good at jazz, so for our New Year’s party they smuggled instruments into the hotel restaurant—we basically took over. While they were playing, everyone started dancing,” she says of the students who danced in the styles from their native Latin American countries.

Between visits to national museums and the Great Wall, the group learned it would be playing for China’s prime minister while in Guangzhou. That evening, they performed for him and an audience of more than 2,000.

For the musicians and many audience members, the orchestra bore an uplifting message about the ability of diverse cultures to connect and build something new together, Paige says. When conductor Josep Vicent needed his worldly crew to change their tone, he described the image of a candle flickering to represent the warmth he wanted their music to convey.

“Once, somebody had a question about phrasing, and everybody had a different idea about how to answer it,” she says. “The product that resulted from all these different approaches was really colorful and varied, in terms of textures and emotions.”

Musical love turns to opera

Paige started playing bass in grade school after her parents encouraged her to pick up an instrument. She studied at the Juilliard School of Music and became enthralled with opera when her bass professor, Tim Cobb of the Metropolitan Opera, suggested she attend a performance at the Met.

“Opera immediately excited my interest. It just grabs me,” Paige says. “I’ve only played a couple of operas. I get distracted when I play opera—I want to pay attention to what’s going on on the stage.”

The strength of UChicago’s program in music history and theory drew Paige to the University, she says.

“We basically have an all-star faculty in the Music Department. Whenever I tell anyone I go to UChicago, everybody knows our department.” She says the department has a small number of undergraduate majors, making it easier for students to seek out professors, including her BA advisor—Philip Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor in Music, and one of the foremost experts on Italian opera.

Paige is currently working on a BA paper about several of Giuseppe Verdi’s later works. On the performance side, she recently played in the University Symphony Orchestra’s production of Peter Tchaikovsky’s works on Jan. 30.

She still plans to pursue a graduate degree in musicology, though Paige says the China experience left her somewhat torn between her interest in opera and the excitement of playing for new audiences.

“Playing in the World Orchestra is incredibly inspiring,” Paige says. “Regardless of what I decide to pursue as a career, music is going to be the focus of my life.”

Originally published on February 1, 2010.