When Emily Bondarenko first played through her piano part in her high school chamber orchestra's newest piece, the jagged melody and chaotic measures did not seem to go together at all.
"It made no sense whatsoever," said Bondarenko, a junior at Buffalo Grove High School who landed the coveted seat in the orchestra after a decade of piano lessons and persistent practice. "It sounded like the ugliest piece in the world."
But a few days later, when Bondarenko joined the full chamber orchestra for its first rehearsal of the piece called "Solaces," the seemingly disconnected parts masterfully blended into a moving, turbulent composition. The piece came together just as it was intended by its composer, who wrote it to help the school's students and staff memorialize and mourn three teachers they had lost.
Last school year, the northwest suburban high school of more than 1,900 students and 240 staff took a lot of life's punches. Two much-loved teachers died after long battles with cancer – palpable losses for students and faculty, who had held fundraisers, worn supportive bracelets and organized a charity run in honor of the ailing instructors. Then a third teacher collapsed in her classroom just after the final school bell. She died of a heart condition and was discovered by a janitor hours later.
Never miss a local story.
Staff and students tried their best to carry on while addressing the grief in the locker-lined hallways. Counselors offered presentations on getting through loss. People stuck hundreds of pink Post-it notes carrying inspiring messages and favorite memories on the walls of the math hallway in honor of Christine M. Lindbloom, 39, the math teacher who died of breast cancer. They raised nearly $20,000 for the Stacey Baylen Family Scholarship Fund, named for the special education teacher who died of colorectal cancer at the age of 42, leaving behind a husband and two sons. And they grieved the unexpected death of Stephanie Ramos, 39, an English as a second language and world languages teacher.
Yet the sense of loss still hung in the air for the Buffalo Grove High School community.
"It was a rough year. It was a year that none of us would've wanted going into it or expected," said Jeff Wardle, the school's principal. "We really joined in clasped hands and arms together as a group."
So orchestra director Elizabeth Bennett created a spreadsheet and invited students and staff to add examples of music that helped them during times of grief. When the suggestions – from "The Beatitudes" by Arvo Part to "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey – came in steadily, Bennett was reminded of the healing power carried in music. It was demonstrated again when students proposed and organized a concert at the end of last school year in which they sang and performed songs designed to cheer their teachers.
Bennett took the notion one step further by commissioning a piece to be composed in honor of the high school. After an anonymous donor stepped up to pay the $1,500 to $2,000 fee, Bennett hired Russell Scarbrough, a New York-based composer and arranger, to meet the school's very specific requests:
She wanted a piece that would convey both the sorrow and grief that the high school community had experienced, but one that also offered hope and gratitude for getting through the tough times together.
And she also wanted the piece written in the keys of B, G, H and S – Buffalo Grove High School's initials. It was no small feat, considering the pitches B, G, H (B natural) and S (E-flat) – the latter two used in German notation but not commonly in Western music – don't naturally sound great together.
"It wasn't meant to be easy, because nothing that we went through was easy," said Bennett. "It has to be about bonding and being thankful for every day we have here."
Six months later, the composer emailed over the piece inspired by a letter written by poet Emily Dickinson, in which she offered a friend "blossoms and books" – "a modest collection of ordinary things to ease the healing." Likewise, "Solaces" – the song written by Scarbrough – was composed as a collection of contrasting episodes "meant to touch a range of emotions, from trauma to supplication, to joy, to peace," the composer said in notes about the composition prepared for the Tribune.
In Buffalo Grove, "Solaces" touched off more artistic expression. An English teacher at the high school, upon hearing the piece, wrote a poem called "Reaching for the Light." A guest conductor, in preparing to help the chamber orchestra to learn the piece, was inspired to paint a watercolor depicting children playing along a shoreline lit in part by three shooting stars – representing the teachers who died.
Both the poem and the artwork will be included in the chamber orchestra's program when it plays the piece for the public at a high school performance at 4 p.m. Jan. 21.
The 18 students in the chamber orchestra began rehearsing the piece together. Sophomore violinist Kelly Duong said she was amazed by the emotion she felt when all the parts were played together.
"The beginning is more the grief part, but towards the middle, where it is more legato, there's hope and the calmness afterward," she said.
Daniel Suh, a senior cellist in the orchestra, said he is looking forward to the comfort the piece can offer the wider community.
"It shows a little, tiny bit of support could just go a long way," he said. "I think it's going to be very meaningful."