Walking into the historic Sammons Center for the Arts, perched on a hill overlooking Harry Hines’ final stretch, was part of a treasured weekly ritual during my senior year of high school. The breezy, sunlight-drenched rehearsal hall, outfitted with a supposedly haunted elevator, has embraced countless young musicians. It’s served as a haven for children from all walks of life to come together to perform timeless music.
I am formerly a member of the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra’s Wind Symphony, and in the summer of 2008, I was asked to embark on a two week tour of China after my initial audition. The touring group was around 40 members, so we all became fairly close. Even six years later, a majority of us remain friends on social media, even though our paths have dispersed us across the country.
One of the musicians I grew close with was Laura Onwudinanti, a skilled clarinetist who sat next to me in our concert arc. Her roots were in Grand Prairie, but her path had taken her to Baylor, where she studied as a Clarinet Performance major. She graduated in May.
Laura’s genuine, vibrant smile and effortless sense of humor made her a pleasure to get to know on and off of the stage. The handful of travel photographs I have of her all showcase her unwavering smile. Laura was a member of the Wind Symphony from 2008 to 2010, and was one of several shining personalities that makes the GDYO organization such a formative and positive experience for musicians.
Earlier this week, her life was taken in a car accident on her way to perform at The International Clarinet Association meeting at Louisiana State University. Another young musician from Dallas, Jack Stewart, was also lost in the accident. Also in the vehicle, with sustained injuries, were Fort Worth’s Jacob Hale and Megan Ritzi. Three of the musicians were Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra alumni.
When such bright lights flicker out, it sends mountainous ripples through the musical family that has formed around them.
The founder of the GDYO Wind Symphony, and our conductor, Dr. David Kehler, was the charismatic and inspiring leader of the ensemble that connected me to Laura. The impact that Kehler leaves on students’ lives is incalculable. His musical history in Texas includes serving as the Associate Conductor to the Dallas WInd Symphony, as well as a four-year stint as the Graduate Conducting Associate at the University of Texas at Austin.
I spoke with Dr. Kehler, who is now the Director of Bands at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, regarding his time with Onwudinanti.
“My heart just sunk when I heard about this yesterday. I actually saw Onwudinanti last spring, when Baylor played at the CBDNA Convention in North Carolina. I was there and heard her group play,” Kehler said. “The composer Scott McAllister posted this piece that he wrote called ‘Gone.’ It was the world premiere and she played bass clarinet on it. It’s a stunning piece.”
“Scott posted that and talked about Laura and sort of rededicated it to her on Facebook,” Kehler said. Here’s the video:
“She has such an amazing, bubbly, wonderful personality and was really working hard and doing great stuff,” Kehler continued. “It’s really sad. It just makes you think, and hits you right in the gut. We all take life for granted.”
The Greater Dallas Youth Orchestras, Inc. Facebook page issued the following statement on Wednesday:
The Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra mourns the tragic deaths of two GDYO alumni who died in a one-vehicle accident Tuesday July 29, southeast of Waco.
Killed in the accident:
Laura Onwudinanti, 21, was a member of the GDYO Wind Symphony in 2008, 09, and 10 and went to China on the Wind Symphony 2008 tour. She had just graduated from Baylor in May with a degree in Music Education.
Jack Stewart,19, was in the Philharmonic in 2012 and 13. He won the Philharmonic Concerto competition in 2013 and returned to perform the Mozart Clarinet concerto with the Philharmonic last November.
Jake Hale, 21, driver of the truck, was seriously injured. Jake played in the GDYO in 2010 and 11.
Megan Ritzi, an incoming freshman at Baylor, was critically injured.
The four were enroute to perform at The International Clarinet Association meeting at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
We are profoundly grateful for the talent and diligence that Laura, Jack, and Jake brought to the GDYO and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all four young musicians in the unfathomably difficult days ahead.