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Before competition at the 2013 Chicago International Music Festival on Tuesday, the Hellgate High School Wind Ensemble plays for a sound check in the famed Chicago Symphony Hall.

Hellgate High School’s wind ensemble returned from a prestigious Chicago music festival on Wednesday wearing proud smiles and bringing back memories of a lifetime.

The 63 students played on the awe-inspiring stage of the Chicago Symphony.

Hellgate’s band was one of five high school bands chosen from hundreds of applications last year to perform at the 2013 Chicago International Music Festival, said Leon Slater, band director.

While at the festival, the Missoula musicians earned the festival’s gold-star rating.

“Of the five high school bands, there was a band from California, Arizona, Florida and Indonesia, and our performance was critiqued and judged as the best,” Slater said. “We were given the gold award for the festival.”

Performing in Chicago Symphony Hall was a transformative experience for the Hellgate band, Slater said, and the musicians were inspired by the magical atmosphere of the concert venue, which is known for its elaborate architecture, four balconies and incredible acoustics.

“It is by far the most beautiful place we have ever performed and the kids just stepped up,” Slater said. “I’m just so proud of them – to be recognized for all of their hard work and dedication.”

“We applied over a year ago and we have been practicing since,” he said. “The kids really stepped up, and to bring the music to the level we played took a huge effort of extra dedication and practice.”

While in Chicago, the band toured the city, and gave a public performance in the famed Field Museum of Natural History.

Although Missoula audiences missed out on hearing the band’s performance that earned gold-star rating from prestigious music educators, the performance was professionally recorded.

“We played the best we ever played,” Slater said. “And I think the performance was truly inspired by the place and seeing and listening to the other bands.”

“More important than any gold award was the fact that we were able to share music with other great musicians,” he said. “We played great and brought the music to life – it was truly an inspired performance.”

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Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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