COAL TOWNSHIP - An arrangement of "Amazing Grace" composed for the 10th anniversary national tribute concert for the Sept. 11 terror attacks will be performed for the first time by a high school orchestra today at Shamokin Area Middle/High School auditorium.

Acclaimed composer and director John Conahan, who

created the special version of the classic hymn, will lead students from 22 high schools in performing it and other pieces when the four-day Pennsylvania Music Education Association (PMEA) District 8 Orchestra Festival culminates with a public concert at 2 p.m.

Some 80 students, housed at homes throughout Shamokin Area School District, have been auditioning since Wednesday. On Friday afternoon, anticipation was building for today's concert.

"I am both excited and nervous because I have a couple of tough pieces," said Matilde Vaninetti, a senior exchange student at Mountoursville High School whose hometown is near Milan, Italy.

"I have never had an experience like this with an orchestra," she said. "I like playing with people my age."

This is the first time in nearly a decade that Shamokin Area has hosted the event.

'A pleasure'

Conahan, director of choral activities at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, was commissioned to compose orchestral and choral pieces by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., for the Concert for Hope, the National 10th Anniversary Reflection, in 2011, which was held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The concert was hosted by CNN's Anderson Cooper and featured President Barack Obama and families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. "Amazing Grace" was among the pieces he composed.

Conahan, taking a few moments before quickly returning to work with the students Friday afternoon, said he was enjoying his time at the festival.

"It has been a pleasure to work with these wonderful musicians and have the support of their music teachers," he said.

Conahan was a recipient of the 2011-2012 Teacher as Hero Award, presented by the National Liberty Museum, Philadelphia. According to its website, the honor is bestowed on teachers who "help make the world a better place for their students, going far beyond what is asked of them to share their time, talents and resources with our next generation of leaders."

Conahan attended Ithaca College, where he earned a degree in music performance. He went on to the Manhattan School of Music and the University of the Arts for his master's work, and has completed a portion of his post-graduate obligations at the Julliard School.

'A great opportunity'

Sharon Styer, PMEA District 8 President and vocal and instrumental director at Mount Carmel Area School District, said PMEA is advocating for music education while schools address budget shortfalls with cuts in the arts.

"We are trying to stress the importance of music in the student's overall education," she said while the orchestra prepared for its Friday afternoon rehearsal.

Leah Nason, a junior at Loyalsock High School who earned first chair violin and the title of concert mistress for the performance, is excited for the event.

"It provides a great opportunity to play with an accomplished conductor and hear their ideas," said Nason, who is performing in her third district orchestra festival. "It is also fun socially because you are with other high school musicians. It is easy to make friends and find people you relate to.

"They are long days and a lot of hours," she continued, "but in the end it is worth it when the concert turns out well."

Other performances

In addition to "Amazing Grace" the orchestra will perform "Tomorrow," an original composition by Conahan; "Finlandia," by Jean Sibelius; "Preludio," from "Cavalleria Rusticana," by Pietro Mascagni; "Essay No.1 for Orchestra," by Samuel Barber; "Overture from the Magic Flute," by Mozart, and "October," by Eric Whitacre and arranged by Paul Lavender.

Barbara DeGaetano of Shamokin Area is host director for the event.