Meet the Orchestra
Nicole Barnhart, 15, started playing violin at the age of 5. She is currently in 10th grade as a homeschooler. She has been a member of Houston Youth Symphony (HYS) for the past 3 years, where she is now concertmaster of her orchestra under the musical direction of Carolyn Vandiver and Ann Victor. She currently studies violin with Mrs. Katherine Sullivan of H-Town Strings. She also enjoys mentoring her teacher’s younger students. A Brazilian native, she enjoys speaking Portuguese with her parents, along with Spanish, which she studies with a private tutor. When she is not practicing, she enjoys figure skating, doing Bible studies with her mom, cooking and baking, going on motorcycle rides with her dad, and spending time with her yorkie.
Claire Cabral, 17, has studied cello for 12 years and is returning for her fourth season with Virtuosi. Her current teacher is Chris French of the Houston Symphony. She is a junior at the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where she plays in the Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Dr. Bradley Smith. In recent summers, she has participated in AFA Summer Music Festival and the National Cello Institute. She was in the Region 23 Symphony Orchestra throughout middle school and the high school Philharmonic Orchestra in 2019. She has previously studied under Lisa Vosdogonas and Daphnee Johnson, and her orchestra directors have included Benjamin Grube, Marcus Altamirano, and Timothy Maynard. Her interests include cooking and playing chamber music.
Daniel Castorena is an 18 year-old senior violist attending Humble High School in Humble, Texas. He first started playing the violin at the age of 13, but then switched to viola at the age of 16. Some of his notable accomplishments include being a member of the Houston Youth Symphony, a three-time Principal Violist in the TMEA Region 33 Symphony Orchestra, a two-time TMEA All-State Orchestra member, and most recently being invited to participate in Carnegie Hall’s 2021 National Youth Orchestra 2 program (NYO2) in New York City. He currently studies with Andrew McCallum and Elyse Catoe. Aside from music, Daniel enjoys playing on his school’s varsity tennis team, going on drives, and hanging out with friends. Daniel plans on pursuing Viola Performance at the university level after he graduates.
Ava Cosse’ is a 14 year-old who began playing the violin at 2 ½ years of age. She currently studies with Mrs. Medea Guldedava. Ava is currently a freshman at J. Frank Dobie High School, where she plays and performs with the Chamber Varsity Orchestra under the direction of Angela Badon, Stephen Payne and Tam Duong. This past summer Ava was one of twenty-nine students admitted to the esteemed Sphinx Performance Academy (SPA) at the Cleveland Institute of Music. While attending SPA she studied with Grammy-nominated violinist Jannina Nortpoth and Assistant Concert-master of the Cleveland Orchestra, Jessica Jinyeong. Ava has also participated in the American Festival of the Arts (AFA) Summer Music Festival. She consistently receives superior ratings at Texas UIL Solo and Ensemble contests and has also consecutively earned positions in the TMEA Region 19 Orchestra since 2017. Ava is an Honor Roll student and a member of the National Junior Honor Society. She is also the recipient of the Dreamer Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Grant awarded through the Black Violin Foundation, Inc. When she is not practicing she enjoys spending time with her family, composing her own original music, crafting, doubles tennis, basketball, and spoiling her dog Fermata with treats.
Nathan Dumrongthai is a 16-year-old junior attending the Village School. He began studying the piano at the age of 5 and the cello, under Apichai Leamthong, at age 9. In 2016, he at-tended his first music camp at the Wells Cathedral School in the UK. In 2017, he moved to Malaysia, where he became a member of the Selangor Philharmonic Orchestra. That same year Nathan received first prize for the Grand Prize Virtuoso, and in 2018 won first prize at the Hong Kong International Performance Arts Festival. In 2019, he moved to the United States, where he currently studies with Dr. Daniel Saenz. He is returning for his second season at Virtuosi. Other than performing, Nathan is also an experienced composer. In 2021, in cooperation with AFA and the Houston Ballet Academy, Nathan wrote his first ballet piece titled
“Spring Without You” — a reflection on self-isolation.
Travis Gibson is a homeschooled senior violinist. He has been playing violin since the age of four. He currently studies with Houston Symphony’s Rodica Gonzalez. Travis is returning for his sixth season with Virtuosi of Houston to continue a long history of participation with the organization. Along with Virtuosi, Travis played in the Houston Youth Symphony for multiple years and has been concert-master of his All-Region orchestra.
He has 5 musical siblings who have all been actively involved in Virtuosi over the years. Outside of music, Travis is an avid distance runner, competing on all levels across the nation. He slso enjoys completing home improvement and maintenance projects such as plumbing work and fence-building. He continues to explore his plans for after graduation.
Mary Kathryn Gibson, 15, is a sophomore homeschooled student who has been playing violin since the age of four. She is currently studying with Houston Symphony violinist Rodica Gonzalez. She has earned recognition for her musician-ship as a Symphony League of Beaumont Outstanding Young Performer, and has previously won placement in the All-Region 19 Orchestra, most recently this year (2021). She is from a musical family, with two of Mary Kathryn’s five musical siblings being former Virtuosi concertmasters. She enjoys cooking and currently prepares all of the meals for her family. An avid and competitive runner, Mary Kathryn has competed with multiple track teams in the Houston area and has broken state, national, and world records. These victories have led her to the Junior Olympic Games multiple time since the age of eight. She plans to continue reaching high
to achieve her goals, both in music and in running.
Arturo Gonzalez, 15, began playing violin at the age of 6 for one year in the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and choirs (El Sistema) in Caracas, Venezuela. He later began playing cello at 11 years old. He has also very recently started to learn how to play piano, studying under the guidance of his uncle, Omar Gomez Blanco, a former teacher of the Vicente Emilio Sojo Conservatory, located in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Arturo is a freshman attending the Woodlands College Park High School in the Woodlands, Texas, under the orchestra direction of Dr. Peter Kempter and Emanuel Coraza. He studies cello privately with Wendy Smith-Butler. Arturo is a participant of the Houston Youth Symphony, a member of the professional Woodlands Symphony, and is returning for his second season with the Virtuosi of Houston. He has also attended other programs such as the American Festival of the Arts
(AFA) and the Luzerne Music Center in Lake Luzerne, New York. Arturo has also earned top positions in the TMEA Region IX Middle School, Region IX High School, Conroe ISD Middle School and Conroe ISD High School orchestras, and has earned multiple gold medals at the Texas UIL Solo and Ensemble Contest. Some activities Arturo enjoys in his free time include composing and studying computer science.
Hannah Han is a 13-year-old, 8th grade student at the Westchester Academy for International Studies. She began studying violin at the age of 3 at the Peabody Preparatory division of the Johns Hopkins Peabody institute. She is currently a student of Mrs. Rodica Gonzalez of the Houston Symphony. She
has performed in more than twenty recitals (solo and chamber ensembles) while a student at the Michael P. Hammond Preparatory Program at the Rice’s Shepherd School of Music. She participated in the AFA summer Music Festival for 2017- 2018 in the first violin section of the Symphonia and Camerata Orchestras. She won fifth place in 2019 and placed first during early 2020 in the annual Virtuosi of Houston Immanuel and Helen B. Olshan Concerto Competition, winning a performance spot as a soloist at the Virtuosi Spring Concerto Concert in 2021. Hannah was also a finalist for the 22nd Symphony North of Houston Young Artist Concerto Competition. She has also participated in the Philadelphia International Music Festival – where she took a master-class with Juliet Kang of the Philadelphia Orchestra – as well as the HeifetzPEG Program. In addition to music, Hannah is a passionate fencer and has received 12 medals from regional and national fencing competitions. She also enjoys many other hobbies, including the performing arts, athletic activities, and academics.
Sarah Hart, 18, is a senior at Cy-Fair High School, where she is a member of the Chamber orchestra led by Lacey Thwing. She began playing the viola in 2015, and has been studying with Dr. Nina Bledsoe Knight since 2016. She has been a part of the TMEA Region 27 Symphony Orchestra every year since 2017, placing first in 2020. She has also earned ones on her solos and ensembles at UIL competitions every year since 2017. She attended the Texas All State Strings Camp for the last four summers and the University of Saint Thomas Viola Day in 2017 and 2019. At school, Sarah is President of the Orchestra, Vice President of Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica, and a member of National Honor Society. She is also a member of Second Baptist Church. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, cycling, and spending time with her dogs Mars, Venus, and Chewie.
Mary Brook Hartmann, 15, attends the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston under the music direction of Dr. Bradley Smith. She is returning for her 4th season with Virtuosi, currently as Principal Cello. She has been playing the cello since the age of 8. She currently studies with Richard Aaron, Professor of Cello at the Juilliard School and the University of Michigan, and with Max Geissler at Rice. She is a student at the Michael P. Hammond Preparatory Program at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music, where she studies with composer Grace Ann Lee and is coached by collaborative pianist Charlie Tauber. She won First Prize at the 2020 International Music Competition Grand Prize Virtuoso in Bonn, Germany, where she traveled to perform in August 2021. She has won prizes at the Immanuel and Helen P. Olshan Foundation Concerto Competition, the Houston Civic Symphony Young Artist Concerto Competition, and Texas MTNA. She has attended the International Cello Institute, the Eastman Cello Institute, Vivace, Orford Music Academy, Boulder Cello Festival, and Greenwood Music Camp. In addition to Virtuosi, she has earned positions in the Houston Youth Symphony’s top orchestra, the 2020 Texas All-State Orchestra, and is Principal Cello of the 2021 TMEA Region 23 Symphony Orchestra. Other passions include chamber music, classic film, and major league baseball.
Ukyo is a 17-year-old violinist from Hiroshima, Japan who started playing at the age of 11. He also plays the piano, which he started at the age of 6. He is currently homeschooling to study for the Japanese national universities’ entrance exams. He has attended the Texas All State Strings Camp, the University of North Texas (UNT) Summer String Institute, and the American Festival of the Arts (AFA) summer music festival, where he recently earned the position of concertmaster for an AFA summer performance. He has been selected for the Region 23 Philharmonic and Symphony orchestras, and has achieved superior ratings at Solo and Ensemble contests every year. He currently studies with Quan Jiang, and his previous teacher was Martin Dimitrov. He enjoys photographing beautiful scenery during vacations and spending time with his family. Ukyo is excited to return for his second year of Virtuosi of Houston, where he looks forward to gaining more musical experience and playing amongst wonderfully talented musicians.
Mani Hourfar, 15, is a sophomore pianist at the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual arts (HSPVA) under the direction of Rodolfo Morales. He has been playing piano since the age of 9.
He currently studies with Richard Marshall in the Michael P. Hammond Preparatory Program of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, where he also studies advanced music theory and composition with composer Alex Berko. Mani is also passionate about chamber music.
He has been coached in multiple master classes by the Fischer Duo, and privately by Shepherd School collaborative piano artist faculty, Charlie Tauber. He studies chamber music at Opus 1 Camber Music School, where he is currently coached by Matt Lammers. Mani attended the Palmetto international Piano Festival, where he had a master class with Paul Nitsch. He was a semifinalist in the 2021 International Houston Youth Chopin Competition. He is excited at the unique opportunity to expand his skills through Virtuosi of Houston this season. Passionate about music, Mani has also played the violin since the age of 6. His other hobbies include chess, reading, and playing music with friends. He volunteers as a piano tutor with the organization Teaching to Give, and has been teaching piano for over 3 years.
Ryder Jensen is 16 years old, and has been playing the viola for 5 years. A junior at William B. Travis High School, he has participated in many music summer festivals such as the NYU Summer Strings Program, Juilliard Music Theory Program, and the AFA String Quartet Program. Ryder performed for multiple years with the Symphony of TMEA Region 13 and was recently awarded the “Outstanding Performer” medal for the All-State UIL (University Interscholastic League) Solo Competition in addition to his high marks on solo performances. Ryder began his viola studies under Director Sophia Hsieh from Sartartia Middle School, and is currently under the direction of Sabrina Behrens at Travis High School. He studies privately with Lauren Haley. In addition to playing with the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra, he has taken lessons with Professor Ivo-Jan van der Werff at Rice University, Professors Amadi Azikiwe and Wendy Richman from NYU, and Michelle Gunn. Outside the world of performance, Ryder loves playing and designing video games, coding, physics, and is currently teaching himself piano to support his composition interest.
Patrick Jia, 16, is a sophomore bassoonist at Kingwood High School under the direction of Tyler Morrison. He has been playing bassoon since sixth grade and is currently taking lessons from James Roberson. Patrick has earned placement in the TMEA Region 33 band/orchestra since eighth grade, and plans to qualify for All-State throughout his high school music career. He has also received superior ratings in the UIL Solo and Ensemble Contest throughout middle/high school. Recently, he qualified for Area Band by placing second chair in the TMEA Region 33 Orchestra auditions. Besides playing bassoon, Patrick has run a couple of half- marathons and is currently training for one in the winter. He also enjoys occasional visits to New Mexico to go skiing with his two older brothers. With the Virtuosi of Houston as his first youth orchestra, Patrick is thrilled to have the opportunity to play with other talented musicians.
Tina Li, 17, a senior at Carnegie Vanguard High School, has been studying violin since the age of 5. She has earned a position in Region 23 orchestra every year since 6th grade and has won numerous accolades in Texas UIL Solo and Ensemble Contests. Tina is returning for her 7th year as a Virtuosi of Houston member. She has attended the Virtuosi of Houston Small Ensemble Workshop coached by Houston Symphony’s Fidelis quartet and has been an active chamber musician throughout the city. Most recently, Tina was awarded a CITGO distin-guished scholarship in performing and fine arts. Outside of the arts, she writes part-time for Buzz Magazine as one of their School Correspondents. Tina has been invited to numerous University research seminars and internships in the fields of economics and political science, including a two-week seminar at Rice University, where she developed interests in economics, ethics, and public policy. She won first prize at the month-long Young Leaders Institute at the Asia Society for her work and is looking forward to further studying these areas in college.
Jonah Loper, 15, is a sophomore Double Bassist who currently studies with Lavelle Florence. Jonah is known for his passion for competitive robotics and bad puns. He started playing the Bass when he was in 6th grade. He has participated in Region 17 for four years. He is excited to be starting his first full season with Virtuosi, after playing with them at the 2021 Annual Spring Gala.
Jay Marenco, 16, is a bassist in 10th grade at Cypress Ranch High School and has been in Virtuosi of Houston for four years. Jay started taking bass lessons at age 10 with Gabriel Katz, studied with Nick Puccia for 3 years, and is now taking lessons with Andrew Moritz. Jay has been selected to be in the Cy Fair Region 27 orchestras for the past 5 years and has also earned top ratings for both solo and ensemble performances in the CFISD UIL compe-titions. Jay participated in the Virtuosi of Houston’s small group ensemble coached by bassist Eric Larsen.
When not playing the bass, Jay enjoys playing the piano, art, music, movies, baking, and is on the Debate Team. Jay also plays the bass guitar and is a founding member of the band Serene. Jay has two older sisters who play the viola and cello at Texas A&M University. During the pandemic, the Marenco family adopted two kittens, Henry and Charlie, who keep the family laughing with their antics.
Corinne McLeod, 16, is a sophomore violinist at Legacy Academy. This is her second season with Virtuosi of Houston. She began her study of violin in 2011 under Mrs. Lauren Kossler of the Winston Salem Symphony and currently studies with Ms. Caroline Ewan of the Cypress Violin Studio. She joined the Houston Youth Symphony in 2019 and served as principal second violin for the 2020-21 season. She now plays as Concertmaster in Philharmonia under the direction of Mr. Michael Isadore. Corinne has attended Texas All-State Strings Camp and the Sewanee Summer Music Festival, where she led as Assistant Principal in the Cumberland Symphony Orchestra. Corinne has been blessed to work with many teachers and conductors including Dr. Lin He, Dr. Gene Moon, Mr. Geoffrey Herd, Mrs. Carolyn Vandiver and Mr. Johnathan Magness. She also frequently plays chamber music with her siblings at church. When she is not playing or practicing, Corinne enjoys horseback riding and golfing.
Dyer McLeod is a 14 year old violinist from Dallas, TX, and is a freshman at Legacy Academy. He started his career at 4 years old with Lauren Kossler of the Winston Salem Symphony. Dyer found his love for orchestral performance under Dr. Jackson Guillen of the Houston Youth Symphony. He currently plays in Philharmonia of HYS under Michael Isadore. He has played under Mrs. Carolyn Vandiver and Mrs. Ann Victor. Dyer studies privately with
Ms. Caroline Ewan of the Cypress Violin Studio. He has been accepted to multiple music festivals across the nation and attended the American Festival for the Arts this past summer.
Dyer plays baseball for the Tomball Kings and enjoys playing golf occa-sionally with his family. He also greatly enjoys hunting with his friends and close family. Dyer is planning on majoring in violin performance and pursuing an orchestral career.
Sadie McLeod is a 13 year old violinist in the 8th grade at Legacy Academy. Sadie began playing under Mrs. Lauren Kossler at the age of 3 and now studies with Ms. Caroline Ewan of the Cypress Violin Studio. She is in her second year with the Houston Youth Symphony and has performed under Mr. Jackson Guillen, Mrs. Carolyn Vandiver, and Mrs. Ann Victor. Sadie was Principal Violin under Ms. Penny Meitz at the American Festival for the Arts in 2021. She plays at church and with her siblings in the Cloud Five Violin Trio. Sadie enjoys horseback riding and spending time with her pet hedgehog.
Maureen Min, 13, is in the 8th grade at Memorial Middle School. She began playing violin at age 6 in the Frostwood Fiddler program. She currently studies with Dr. Mauricio Oliveros and has previously studied with Padua Canty and Katie Hemphill. She is in the Chamber Orchestra
at Memorial Middle School under Mr. Kevin Ray and Ms. Bethany Prindle. She has performed in several recitals and competitions. She participated in the Sewanee Summer Music Festival (SSMF) for music composition with Dr. Jorge Variego in 2020. In 2021, she participated in the SSMF with Dr. Lin He for violin performance, and she advanced to the semi-final at the Jacqueline Avent concerto competi-tion. She also played in the Houston Youth Symphony 2018-2020. In 2019, Maureen played in the Symphony Orchestra for TMEA Region 27. In 2021, Maureen ranked number
one for TMEA Region 27. She has received Outstanding Performance twice at the Texas UIL Solo and Ensemble contests. In addition to violin, she has played piano since age 4, winning multiple awards including first place in the HMTA piano contest in 2016 and first place in the HMTA Winners Contest in 2016. Maureen also enjoys musical theatre and playing tennis.
Shayla Nguyen, 17, has been studying violin for 6 years since the age of 11, and is in her first season with Virtuosi of Houston. She plans to continue her studies of violin into college. Her current teacher is Mr. Matthew Madonia. She is a senior at William B Travis High school and is the Principal Second violin of the symphony orchestra under the direction of Mrs. Sabrina Behrens. In March of 2019, she performed in the Disney Performing Arts Workshop and in the Texas Association of School Boards FBISD performance in September of 2021. She has earned placement in the second violin section of the 2017-2020 TMEA All-Region 13 Philharmonic orchestra. She has also consistently won superior ratings on both solos and ensembles during the 2017-2020 UIL Solo and Ensemble competitions. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, painting, listening to music, and playing the cello and piano.
Meena Pak, 14, is a freshman at Memorial High School. This is her second year with Virtuosi. She began playing violin at age 5 in the Frostwood Fiddler program under Padua Canty. After 5 years in the Fiddler program she joined the Houston Youth Symphony for 2 years. She currently studies under Hannah Watson at Tallowood’s Academy of Fine Arts. She has participated with the American Festival of the Arts (AFA) summer music festivals and the TMEA Region 27 Symphony Orchestra during middle school. At school, she has been playing the viola for the past 3 years and has participated and been awarded outstanding performances for UIL Ensembles. She has played the viola under the direction of Ms. Megan Saavedra and Ms. Bethany Prindle at Memorial Middle school and now under Mr. Matthew Chan and Ms. Danielle Prontka. Outside of orchestra, she enjoys hanging out with friends, listening to music, traveling, and playing tennis on the MHS freshman team.
Mathew Perez is a joyful, optimistic clarinet player who has been playing clarinet for 7 years. He’s currently 17 years old and a senior at Manvel High School. Mathew started playing his instrument at eleven years old in 6th grade. He plans to apply to the University of Houston and major in music performance and education. Mathew has been apart of the TMEA 5A All-State Band, and has been a part of the Texas Tech summer band program. In addition to Virtuosi, he has been a member of the Houston Youth Symphony for the last two years, participating in their top orchestra, Symphony. A notable mention to Mathew’s music endeavors is that he also has scored consistent “1”s on the pieces he has chosen for Solo and Ensemble. Mathew currently studies under Rebecca Tobin and Chester Rowell, both with whom he has been studying for three years now. In his free time he loves to work out after school or hang out with his friends and family. He is also a huge food lover and enjoys exploring new foods from different cultures.
Aaron Price is an 18 year-old senior and first chair clarinet at Ridge Point High School. He began playing the Bb Clarinet in the 6th grade when he was 12. Aaron is a member of the Houston Youth Symphony and takes private lessons from Chester Rowell, Affiliate Artist in Clarinet at Moores School of Music/UH. His high school band directors are Luis Saldana and Willaim Burson, and his orchestra director is Henry Watts. As a fresh-man, Aaron achieved a one at State Solo and Ensemble competition and made the Region Band. He has since made the All-State band and the Region orchestra. He loves traveling and competing in tournaments for tennis, attends Texas A & M’s Tennis Camps in the summer, and he plays on the Varsity team at his school. Aaron enjoys spending time with his friends and family, and is proud to be a member of the Virtuosi of Houston.
Andrea L. Ramirez-Salazar is a 14 year-old violinist and freshman at Memorial High School. She plays in the Memorial High School Orchestra Program under the direction of Danielle Prontka and Matthew Chan. Andrea has been playing the violin for nearly ten years. She began her studies at Wilchester Elementary School through the Suzuki Program led by Patricia Karakas. She currently studies with Katrina Bobbs Savitski. During elementary school, An-drea participated in the SBISD Solo and Ensemble competition, winning Out-standing Performance medals for four consecutive years. In middle school, she was a member of the Spring Branch Middle School Chamber Orchestra, led by Cleo Miele (2017-2021) and Kathleen Hemphill (2021). She also participated in SBISD Solo and Ensemble, winning three more Outstanding Performance medals and three first ranking medals for her ensembles. She was selected for the Region 27 Middle School Symphony Orchestra in sixth and seventh grade, both times as a first violin. This year she is a first violin in the Region 27 High School Symphony Orchestra, and auditioned for the TMEA All-State Orchestra for the first time. In February of 2022, Andrea and the Sinfonia Orchestra from Memorial High School will be traveling to San Antonio to perform at the 2022 TMEA convention. Along with enjoying the violin, Andrea has other musical hobbies such as piano, guitar, and singing. She is also a first time member of the Memorial High School Debate Team, led by Harry Yu. Andrea is returning for her third season with Virtuosi of Houston
Nathan Russ, 13, has been playing the cello since the age of 7. He lives in Klein, Texas and is homeschooled in the 8th grade. Nathan has participated in numerous summer programs and master classes, soloing with an orches-tra in summer 2019. Nathan has twice earned principal cello in the Texas Music Educators Association Region IX Junior High Orchestra. He has won several gold medals for solos at the Texas UIL Solo and Ensemble Contest, advancing to state for the first time at age 10. Nathan presented a solo recital in March 2020 performing works of Bach, Beethoven, and Kabalevsky.
He has performed with the Houston Youth Symphony for the past five years, and studies privately with Courtenay Vandiver Pereira. A video and board game enthusiast, Nathan also enjoys playing tennis and the piano. He has two cats, Lucy and Gracie, who are a frequent, if indifferent, audience.
Sofia Sehgal, 14, is a double bassist who attends The Village High School as a freshman. She started playing the bass in 6th grade at Sartartia Middle School with Sophia Hsieh and is cur-rently studying with Andy Moritz. In 7th grade she placed 2nd chair in her Region 13 Middle School Symphony Orchestra. She also performed a solo along with her co-bassists and with the Sartartia Honors Orchestra for the TMEA 2021 Convention in January. From 3rd to 6th grade, she was part of a rock band where she did vocals, played the guitar, keys, and electric bass. Aside from music, she has an affinity for learning new languages, as she already speaks four: Spanish, Hindi, Swedish, and English. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, playing the piano, watching movies/ anime, playing golf, taekwondo, skiing, and traveling.
Benjamin is a 17 year-old Venezuelan cellist, trained in the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela. He began his musical studies at age 7. Since then he has belonged to several local orchestras and participated in numerous concerts and recitals. In 2016, he began his studies at the Simon Bolivar Music Conservatory in Caracas, where his mentors were the Maestros Francy Vasquez and Juan J Romero. In 2017 he was part of the Chacao Youth Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of maes-tro Ulyses Ascanio, as second cello. In April of 2018 he emigrated to the USA, and since that time Courtenay Vandiver Pereira has been his mentor in cello. Benjamin is part of the or-chestra of Mayde Creek High School, performing in TMEA Region 23’s Orchestra for four consecutive years, earning a Principal Cello position in 2021. He has also played for multiple years in the Houston Youth Sym-phony, the last two of those in HYS’s top orchestra (Symphony). He has participated in the 2020 and 2021 International Cello Institute, placed 5th and 2nd in the Virtuosi Concerto Competition, and was invited by Carnegie Hall to join the prestigious 2021 National Youth Orchestra 2
(NYO2). He is fortunate to have been under the direction of the Maestros Franz Krager and Andzrej Grabiec at Virtuosi of Houston since 2018.
Brigham Smith, 15, is a cellist new to Virtuosi this year. He is a sophomore in the Engineering program at Westside High School where he is principal cellist of the Westside Orchestra, the Jazz Band pianist, and on the FRC robotics team. Brigham started piano lessons at age five and studies with Yolanda Li. He won 1st place in the HMTA Piano Contest in 2018, 2019, 2020, and was a finalist in 2021. He is an auditioned member of the National Piano Guild and was awarded Honorable Mention at the North Texas Young Artists Competition in 2021. Brigham began taking cello lessons at age nine and studies with Ed Harper. He has received Division 1 ratings at UIL Solo contests. In 2019, Brigham began studying the organ with Kymberly Payne and is the Sunday worship organist for a Vietnamese LDS church congregation in Houston. Brigham is an 8-year TMTA Music Theory Gold Medalist. In his spare time, Brigham enjoys flying and repairing remote control planes and drones. Brigham has served in his community as a volunteer pianist and cellist at the retirement home. He also takes the time to accompany his four siblings on their violin and voice performances. He enjoys playing music with his family.
Olivia Thoelke is an 18 year-old senior attending Wittenberg Academy She began playing cello when she was 5 years old. She is also accomplished on the piano and organ. She’s has played in various youth orchestras in the St. Louis area. Most recently she was a part of the Young People’s Symphonic Orchestra under the direction of Patrick Jackson and
the PREP program at Webster Community School. She has also had the honor of being a part of
the Illinois All-State and All-District orchestras along with receiving superior ratings at Illinois Solo and Ensemble Competition. She currently studies cello with Ken Kulosa. Olivia has participated in church choir, theater, scholar bowl, book club, philosophy club, yearbook club, welcome team, and games with her family. In her free time she enjoys cross stitch and embroidery.
Lucas Velasquez is a 17 year-old senior at Cypress Ranch High School. This will be his fourth season with Virtuosi of Houston. He has been playing the cello for 7 years, currently studying with Mrs. Wendy Butler of the Houston Ballet Orchestra. He has also played piano for 6 years. Lucas has participated in the 2017 Virtuosi of Houston summer workshop and was a member of Region 27 Sym-phony Orchestra for his 8th grade year. His hobbies include karting, playing games, and folding paper airplanes. What he enjoys the most is anything about planes, from early propeller-propelled to modern jets. He admires how each aircraft was built and how it fulfills its purpose. In the future he aims to become a commercial pilot. Having been influenced from his first experience on a plane early in life, he hopes to bring that same experience to others.
Ainsley Willis, 17, is a junior at Dobie High School. She has been playing bass since 5th grade, and is now a member of the Dobie High School Chamber Varsity Orchestra under the direction of Angela Badon, Stephen Payne, and Tam Duong. She has received superior ratings consistently at Solo and Ensemble festi-val since the 6th grade. Ainsley has been a Region 19 member the last 5 years. In 8th grade, Ainsley was the Region 1st chair bass and in 9th grade she was 2nd chair. In 2021, she was ranked first in her region. She takes lessons with Becky Merritt, a member of the Pasadena Philharmonic, Galveston Symphony, and Clear Lake Symphony, and also with Carlos Amaro, former Virtuosi alumnus. She completed a Summer Workshop with AFA of Texas this past summer. Ainsley likes to spend time with her cats and dogs, and hang out at home with her family and friends. Ainsley would like to volunteer at a local animal shelter and hopes to be a forensic scientist.
Kevin Xiong, 16, is a junior at Memorial High School. He is under the musical direction of Suzanne Scott and Jeffery Munger. He has been playing oboe for five years and English horn for two years. In the past, Kevin has been the principal chair of region band, a member of area band, and the recipient of multiple awards at UIL Solo Ensemble contests and TSSEC. During the summer, he has attended Bocal Majority Double Reed Camp, Sam Houston State University Double Reed Day, and the National Symposium for Debate. Kevin currently studies oboe with Leah Solis and has played for Russ DeLuna. He is part of multiple honor societies, volunteer organizations, and the Memorial High School drumline. When not playing oboe or English horn, he enjoys watching drum corps and BOA, hanging out with friends, and baking.
Nathan Xu, 13, has been playing the violin since the age of 8. He is in the eighth grade at Seven Lakes Junior High School, where he enjoys participating in his school’s concerts and performances. Nathan has made the Region 23 Sym-phony Orchestra for the past 3 years, and won first place in 2021. His private lesson teacher is Mr.Yuli Jiang. His previous teacher was Mrs. Danette Schuh. Nathan’s orchestra directors are Mrs. Jennifer Gingell and Ms. Bethany Hagin. He has 2 goldfish, though would like a cat or dog. He is involved in the math club along with his orchestra program at school. Over the years Nathan has enjoyed playing soccer, recreational swimming, and traveling to multiple places in China and the U.S.
Brendon Young is a 17 year-old senior at Kingwood High School. He started his musical career by playing the cello for only a year and then switching to bassoon. He also started playing contrabassoon 2 years ago. He has been a part of the Kingwood High School Symphony, the Second Baptist Church Orchestra, and the Houston Youth Symphony. He made the All- State band his junior year and All-State for Solo and Ensemble his junior and sophomore years. He works with Mr. James Roberson through private lessons, and his band director is Mr. Tyler Morrison. He has run track for 3 years of high school, participates in the marching band, and loves fishing.