Members of the Northport High School Symphony Orchestra won a national competition to perform at the prestigious Kennedy Center. NewsdayTV's Virginia Huie reports. Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez

The orchestra at Northport High School is headed for the performance of a lifetime: They will play at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., during a special Presidents Day show.

The orchestra is among four chosen from high schools across the United States to play in the 2024 Capital Orchestra Festival at the famous center on the banks of the Potomac River.

“It’s such an honor. It was kind of a shock to even be selected,” said Tesse Cote, 17, a senior who plays cello in the orchestra.

Northport was among 15 high schools selected just to apply to perform at the show, said Michael Susinno, the orchestra’s director. Then they had to make it down to the final four.


  • The Northport High School orchestra is among four chosen from high schools across the United States to play in a Feb. 19 concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
  • will get a master class from a former conductor of the U.S. Air Force Symphony Orchestra as well as visit Washington museums and monuments.
  • Students must pay their own way but many are fundraising to help defray the cost. Community members and businesses are pitching in.
Northport High School orchestra director Michael Susinno conducts the school's...

Northport High School orchestra director Michael Susinno conducts the school's orchestra during a practice session in preparation for their performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Credit: Newsday / Kendall Rodriguez

The others are from Atlanta; Winter Park, Florida; and Walla Walla, Washington.

“It was a wonderful surprise. We were not expecting to be contacted and to be invited to apply for this honor,” Susinno said.

They will perform on Monday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m.

The orchestra’s path to D.C. started last year when it was selected to perform at the American String Teachers Association’s National Orchestra Festival in Orlando, Florida, Susinno said.

That helped it to start to get some national recognition.

Still, Northport did not win that competition, or even place. But the event last March did something to the group that sent it in search of a higher level, Susinno said.

A turning point came as the orchestra sat in the back of a cavernous convention hall listening to other groups perform. They listened intently as one violin soloist played an incredibly difficult piece with remarkable skill and beauty, he said.

But soon they began to realize he was playing with a prosthetic right arm. The director and the students could hardly believe it, Susinno said.

“Some of the kids got weepy because they realized what he had to do overcome that handicap, and how much harder he had to work to get to that level,” he said.

They were also impressed by the other orchestras in general.

“We were just blown away by the excellence of the group who won,” from Charleston, South Carolina, he said. “We heard so many wonderful orchestras from all over the United States.”

Most were from specialized performing arts high schools or audition-only ensembles, he said. Northport is neither — anyone can join.

They came back from the trip energized and determined to take their performance to another level, he said.

“Even though we may not have been the strongest orchestra at that event, that was a real spark,” he said. After they returned home, “their productivity had doubled. They wanted to be like the other students that they had met. They wanted to sound like the other orchestras that had inspired them.”

At their spring concert a month later, they let loose.

The concert was videotaped, and Susinno sent a copy via YouTube to the Kennedy Center organizers. In September, he got the shocking news that they were in.

“We are very aware that none of us may ever have this opportunity again,” Susinno said. “It’s being part of something momentous that I hope they will remember the rest of their lives.”

The group leaves from Northport this Saturday at 5 a.m., and will get to the capital in time for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

On Sunday, they and the other three orchestras will get their own master class from Col. Dennis Layendecker, the former conductor of the U.S. Air Force Symphony Orchestra. They will also visit Smithsonian museums and monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial. A luncheon boat cruise on the Potomac with the other orchestras is also planned.

On Monday morning, they will have a sound check at the Kennedy Center and get a tour — something not available to the public.

Susinno noted that it will be first school trip to the capital for most of the students since previous trips were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students must pay their own way — about $1,000 each — but many are fundraising to help defray the cost. Community members and businesses are pitching in.

“The entire community has rallied around us,” Susinno said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for” the students “but it’s also in some ways a responsibility for us to represent our school and our community and in this case our state.”

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