By Eric Dundon
As the lights dimmed in the Sumner High School auditorium and the stage lights illuminated the faces of students on December 9, a poignant performance took shape.
Students from the historic north St. Louis school told stories about teenage challenges, hopes for the future, and finding what’s Worth Fighting For through song, dance, drama, and spoken word, with original music provided by a quintet of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians.
The production of Worth Fighting For was the culminating act of the school’s winter arts showcase, the first major event held at the school since it was spared closure in March 2021 and reimagined with a focus on arts and community activism. Students at the school now participate in a range of arts courses including dance, drama, visual art, and music. Worth Fighting For combines elements of each for a musical story told in students’ voices about the effort to save their school.
The SLSO was one of several cultural institutions to provide support, guidance, and resources to Sumner students and educators after the St. Louis Public School Board of Education provided a three-year timeframe to improve enrollment and student engagement. Other institutions lending support to Sumner include Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, 314 Movement Lab, The Black Rep, Pianos for People, STAGES St. Louis, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and Craft Alliance.
Val Smith and Jermaine Smith, teaching artists with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, led the students in the creation of Worth Fighting For.
“There was this instant connection between the musicians and the students,” said Jessica Ingraham, SLSO Director of Education. “Seeing the students’ confidence and pride in their abilities grow and mature with each rehearsal was incredibly powerful and a true testament to the power of collaborating and creating with young people.”
The music for Worth Fighting For was composed by Val Smith with input from Sumner students and orchestrated for SLSO musicians by T.J. Abernathy, an alumnus of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and a former SLSO IN UNISON Scholar. Abernathy consulted with SLSO violinist Emily Ho on the orchestration for the production.
From left: Ron Moberly, Yin Xiong, and Leo Plashinov-Johnson. (Phillip Hamer/OTSL)
For the project, Emily was joined by violinist Lisa Chong, violist Leo Plashinov-Johnson, cellist Yin Xiong, and double bassist Ron Moberly. The quintet rehearsed with Sumner students and joined them for the December 9 performance.
As their musical collaboration deepened, friendships began to emerge between the students and SLSO musicians.
“From learning our names to sharing classical pieces they had heard, we could instantly feel the Sumner students' excitement for the music,” Emily Ho said. “Their enthusiasm brought out the best in all of us and I want to thank them for making this such a positive shared experience.”
The December 9 performance received a rousing ovation from the student body, as well as the many family members and community supporters in attendance.
Eric Dundon is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Public Relations Manager.