PLEASANTON -- Take 100 middle school students from California, tell them to pack for five cold, rainy East Coast days, pack close to 200 musical instruments -- including tubas, baritone saxophones, cellos, and drums -- and shepherd them to New York City.

A logistical nightmare? No, it's the recipe for an incredible spring break.

The seventh- and eighth-graders of Pleasanton's Hart Middle School bands are spending their break living the dream of many musicians -- to perform at New York City's Carnegie Hall. They will perform Thursday evening with their teacher, Dennis Aquilina.

"For me, personally, it's a dream come true," Aquilina said. "I grew up in New York and went to Carnegie Hall numerous times to watch performances. I always hoped I would be on that stage someday.

"This is the place I have told all my groups that they should imagine themselves playing," he said.

Aquilina saw two of his former students, Chris McLauren and Ken Shanker, perform at Carnegie Hall last year with the New World Symphony and guest artist Yo-Yo Ma.

At that moment, he decided to try to make that experience happen for his students.

"I sent in the audition tape, and the rest is history. Now, they don't have to imagine anymore," Aquilina said.

After Aquilina learned that they were accepted, he went to work deciding what they would play. He had two musical works commissioned to commemorate the occasion, one for the string orchestra and the other for the symphonic band.


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Aquilina decided to pay tribute to some important people in the Pleasanton school district, Thomas and Mary Hart, the school's namesake and his wife; and Juanita Huagen, a champion for the arts and a beloved member of the school board who passed away last year.

"The Erin Isle Sketches" by Elliot Del Borgo pays tribute to the Hart family's Irish heritage and "Heart of the City," by Gary Gilroy is an energetic piece that captures the feeling of traveling through the city. Members of both families were present and honored at last week's dress rehearsal, held in Livermore's Bankhead Theater.

In addition to performing in Carnegie Hall, the band will attend a concert by the New York Philharmonic Symphony, a gospel brunch at the Cotton Club in Harlem and a clinic by trumpeter Alan Cheznovitz.

The Hart jazz band will play at Lehman College in the Bronx with a local high school's Latin jazz band.

Their exploration of the city includes St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, a boat cruise, a Broadway play and a stop at the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks memorial at ground zero. Aquilina also plans to show the students the neighborhood in Queens where he grew up.

Kelly Dillard, a seventh-grade percussion player, said that of all the scheduled events she is most looking forward to the Carnegie Hall performance.

"Professional musicians dream their entire lives of performing there, and we get to do it in middle school. I feel very lucky," she said.

What moment is Aquilina most looking forward to?

"The end of the concert when the people applaud -- seeing friends and family and hearing what they have to say about these amazing students."

Amy Moellering welcomes your stories about local schools. Reach her at ajmoellering@comcast.net.