For 29 years, the Radford Highlands Chapter of the Virginia Music Teachers Association and Virginia Tech’s Department of Music have remembered one of their own.
Friday marks the 30th anniversary of the Rebecca Orr Memorial Benefit Concert, wherein student and faculty performers come together to present an evening festival of musical events. But this year, participants are bringing something new to the stage in Squires Student Center.
Tracy Cowden, an associate professor of piano and vocal coach at Tech, said the concert participants are working to breathe new life into the program.
“It’s not just one ensemble of performers,” Cowden said. “We’ve expanded the number of people involved so the audience will hear from artists who have never been on the program before.”
This year’s festival brings a variety of solo and group performers together. Audience members will experience performances by pianists, cellists, violinists and guitarists.
Cowden is no stranger to the benefit concert. Her nine years of experience as a soloist and vocalist have allowed her to see progress being made.
“Bringing new instrumentalists, vocalists and music to the stage every year gives the concert longevity,” Cowden said. “Having a different experience every year is certainly an advantage.”
Cowden said the musical selection is as varied as the types of performers. Audience members will hear performers play music by several famed composers, including Johannes Sebastian Bach, Aaron Copland and Claude Debussy.
“I’ve performed several different types of music,” Cowden said. “The concert features a mix of music written by composers on the faculty as well as music written by famous composers.”
Every year, music is chosen and performed to honor the memory of Rebecca Orr. She was a piano student of Nitza Kats, an associate professor of music at Radford University. Kats taught at Tech until 1984, a year after the first memorial benefit concert was held.
Orr was killed in a drunk driving accident at Oberlin College, and a year after her death in 1982, Kats gave a solo piano recital. Although it was not as developed as the benefit concert is now, Kats made sure the proceeds from her performance went to a fund. The money she received was donated to what is now the Rebecca Orr Scholarship and Educational Fund of the Highlands Chapter to support students like Orr.
Kats said the involvement and support of Tech’s music department has been helpful. From the beginning, Tech has worked with the Highlands Chapter to set up a venue for the concert, advertise and bring performers together.
“They have been very generous,” Kats said. “The members of the Highland Chapter and the department of music at Tech continue to volunteer their time and artistry to this benefit.”
Each year, the performers gather at Tech to participate in the Rebecca Orr Memorial Piano Technique Festival. Performers of all different skill levels display their technique in a competition that Kats calls popular.
“It’s an event that attracts our loyal audience year after year,” Kats said.
While the benefit concert is noncompetitive, Kats and Cowden both said that the Technique Festival gives students ample opportunity to build their performance skills. Cowden said she enjoyed seeing students composing their own piano pieces in addition to the required techniques they perform.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to be exposed to high-quality performing artists,” Cowden said. “It helps them develop proficiency and see how important it is to give back to the community.”
Cowden stressed the concert’s importance to the Blacksburg community. The benefit concert is one of the biggest events the Highlands Chapter sponsors.
“The Virginia Music Teachers Association is valued in the community,” Cowden said. “Supporting the efforts of local musicians is important.”