The Paducah Tilghman High School orchestra will take the trip of a lifetime when it visits Austria in July and takes part in a musical competition marking the 250th anniversary year of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth.

Orchestra director Doug Van Fleet said the trip is the result of trying to make the orchestra -- and the school -- "world class." This will be the orchestra's first trip outside of the U.S.

"In an in-service program here at the school, (Assistant Superintendent) Will Black challenged us all to be world-class," Van Fleet said. "Not just good. We feel like we're good. We've gotten distinguished ratings in everything every year.

"We've got to be where the best is if we want to be world-class. The heart of the music world's in Vienna - almost everybody would agree with that. So, I thought, 'Well, let's take a trip over there.'"

As it happens, next year marks the 250th anniversary of classical composer Beethoven's birth, and the Summa Cum Laude International Music Youth Festival tied into that will be held in Vienna on July 10-15. Before you could say "Eroica," the PTHS orchestra was registered to take part in the festival.

"The competition's going to be pretty stiff," Van Fleet said. "Groups from anywhere in the world are invited; we don't know who the competition is yet. So, what we've got to do is get our (performance) ready and clean -- really good.

"They've got a musical requirement list, and it turns out we've already played four (compositions) on the list. So, we chose the tunes: Mozart's Divertimento 136, which is a really nice piece of orchestra music for a string orchestra by Mozart -- we'll visit his house while we're there -- and the other piece that we have is a little more contemporary piece, the Holberg Suite by Edvard Grieg."

Signing up for the festival was the easy part. Now, the orchestra needs to raise the money to pay for the 22 members and their instruments to make the trip this summer.

"The trip will cost $3,999 each," Van Fleet said. "The touring company (WorldStrides) offers scholarships, so all of the kids are going to apply for scholarships, and we're going to do some fundraising, too. We've already gotten $25,000 raised."

Van Fleet said the orchestra will accelerate its fundraising efforts throughout the school year, including a mailout campaign and sales of a professionally-recorded CD of the orchestra.

"It's a very generous community we live in," he said. "If you show this community that you've got something worthwhile that you want to do, they will help you. I've never been disappointed."

Van Fleet was instrumental (no pun intended) in starting the Paducah Symphony in 1979. He came to Paducah in 1976 as a teacher in the Paducah school district and retired in 1992. He started teaching at St. Mary that year and stayed until 2009. He opened a studio before the Paducah superintendent called and asked him to come back to teach, and he has been at PTHS ever since.

"This will be 57 years for me, for teaching," he said. "I love every minute of it; I do."

Van Fleet said, with the community's help, music students would be able to make the trip of a lifetime and perform in one of the world's most famous concert halls.

"You set the goals and go for it," he said, "but being world-class is more than just the school. The community has to be that, too. I feel like our community is really good. I've been here for 43 years. This community is a really good arts community -- really good."

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