One day, Laurie Cunningham’s son, Jimmy, came home and told her that the kids who played in the Fifth Avenue Strings wanted to attend a summer camp to learn to play better.
“I thought, why not Chautauqua?” Cunningham said.
So in 2012, she rented a house and contracted with Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s Brian Reagin to tutor the quartet. The Fifth Avenue Strings got to play a morning worship service, thanks to the efforts of Institution organist Jared Jacobsen.
Then, Cunningham learned about the Chautauqua Music Camps.
Cunningham undertook a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for gate passes, and the Fifth Avenue Strings attended the orchestral and chamber music camps.
Since then, Cunningham’s efforts have expanded.
“We started with six kids, had 14 in in 2014, and, this year, we have 27, many of whom are coming to Chautauqua for the first time,” Cunningham said.
During Week Eight, the group will stay in the houses of the International Order of King’s Daughters and Sons and will eat and practice at Bellinger Hall.
The experience at Chautauqua exposed the students to a high degree of musicianship and also taught them team building — learning to listen the the others to play together, Cunningham said. Her son went home in 2012 to play in the Three Rivers Young People’s Orchestra, and the conductor singled him out and said, “Play like this boy,” because he had learned to watch the other players.
The students who come perform not only with the orchestra and chamber music camp, but have also played at various functions for the Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran denominational houses.
This year, Andrew Zemzer will sing with the students when they play at the Unitarian Universalist Service at 9:30 a.m. Sunday in the Hall of Philosophy. The group will play a premiere by 15-year-old Hannah Ishizaki, “Chautauqua Sunset” for a dinner at the President’s Cottage.
Jacobsen has invited them to play for the morning worship service each year they have been on the grounds. This is the third year they will premiere a work by 18-year-old Sasha Voinov. This year’s piece is called “Pandora” and is for the Massey Organ and strings. Voinov will not be with the group this year; he is headed to Duke University to study neurosurgery.
Chautauquans will be able to spot the group by their green tote bags, which read “Chautauqua Music Camp,” designed by group member Devon Moore, a violinist and visual artist.
Cunningham has had a career in nonprofit management and is married to WQED personality Jim Cunningham. They were in Chautauqua for Public Radio Day in July.
Earlier in the summer, she brought a group of 10- to 14-year-olds from the Pittsburgh Symphonette to play before the taping of “From the Top” with Christopher O’Riley on June 30.
Cunningham praised the orchestra and music camp along with director Peter Lindblom.
“These are future Music School Festival Orchestra Members and Juilliard students,” she said. “Plus, we have introduced 27 new families to Chautauqua. It is great to put these students before an authentic audience in a place that gets it.”