A guest blog from community writer Judy Sly
When you are 84 years old, people expect you to start slowing down, to dwell more on the past than the future and be a little averse to trying new things.
The Modesto Symphony Orchestra is doing none of those things.
It is in the midst of their 84th season with a full plate of performances and educational activities, including a new effort to put musical instruments into the hands of local school children, culminating with a mass performance at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
For several years, MSO has had an Instrument Petting Zoo, a small menagerie of musical instruments for little folks to touch and even try out. The petting zoo visits school classrooms and goes to the Stanislaus County Library for children’s story times.
This past September, for instance, a librarian read the book “Tubby the Tuba” to the assembled preschoolers and elementary age children. “Tubby” laments the fact that he never gets to play the melody; he’s always relegated to the oompah sounds. The other instruments laughed at his wish to play a melody, but Tubby finally gets his chance and the story ends, like children’s books usually do, happily.
The children then got to hear a real tuba, played by Nathan Gugel, a 15-year-old Hughson High School student who is a member of the Modesto Symphony Youth Orchestra. He played a melody and demonstrated just how low the tuba can go. Then the children lined up to pet. For most, it was their first opportunity to hold a violin and bow or to blow into a trumpet.
Nathan is a good example of the kind of teens who participate in the Youth Orchestra – talented and determined. Some plan to major in music; others, like Nathan, will keep playing as an avocation. He hopes to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, majoring in physics with a minor in music.
The youth symphony performed side-by-side with the professional musicians of the MSO on Nov. 7 and 8. The youth have one more of their own concerts scheduled the afternoon of May 16.
The youth symphony also recently performed on March 13, joined by hundreds of local elementary school students playing recorders. The concert was the culminating feature of a new partnership with the Carnegie Hall LinkUp Education Program.
Modesto Symphony is one of 70 orchestras across the nation participating in the Carnegie Hall program this year. Carnegie provides, at no cost to the local symphonies or schools, the curriculum and a handbook for teachers and a workbook for each student. The schools will be able to purchase inexpensive, high-quality soprano recorders. Most important, the third- through fifth-grade students will get what for many will be their first music lessons.
“For some kids, this recorder will be the only instrument they ever have,” says Caroline Nickel, president and CEO of the MSO. The plan is to make this an ongoing program, limited only by the size of the 1,200-plus-seat Rogers Theater.
Music instruction in the schools has been reduced dramatically in recent years. The typical music teacher has to visit multiple campuses each week, and many families cannot afford to rent or buy a violin, clarinet or other instrument.
The Carnegie LinkUp program is intended to help fill the gap and ideally whet some young appetites to further pursue music or to have a little better understanding as listeners.
Modesto has a long and rich tradition of music instruction and performance. History books say that the youngsters were offered piano lessons soon after the city was founded in 1870.
The oldest ongoing performance group is what we now know as Mo Band, which performs the popular summer series of concerts at Graceada Park. Frank “Proof” Mancini, who taught at Modesto High School for years, was the popular conductor of Mo Band, originally called the Stanislaus County Boys Band. Lesser known is the fact that Mancini was one of three founders and the inaugural conductor of the Modesto Symphony, which performed its first concert in April 1931. Few cities of Modesto’s size at that time – about 14,000 people – boasted their own symphony orchestra.
The symphony has had many homes over the decades: churches, Modesto High School, the Modesto Junior College gymnasium and then the MJC auditorium. Like several other performing groups, it now is proud to be one of the resident companies of the Gallo Center for the Arts, a venue that routinely draws comments from guest soloists and conductors because of its amazing acoustics.
Traditional symphonic music that was the initial fare of the Modesto Symphony continues to be featured in the five concerts in the Classic Series each year. There also is the Hilmar Cheese Company Pop Concert series that this year includes a holiday jazz concert Dec. 5 and 6, a Louis Armstrong Tribute on March 13 and Comedy Meets Symphony on June 5.
The symphony kicks off each season with “Picnic at the Pops” on the beautiful grounds of the E.&J. Gallo Winery. The event has become a community favorite, usually drawing 3,000 to 4,000 people.
At three concerts during the year, the orchestra is joined by the Modesto Symphony Orchestra Chorus, featuring more than 140 singers of all ages and experience, most of them local residents.
Like other of the so-called “high art forms,” symphonies are changing their tune to reach a population with less knowledge of classical music.
“Over the last 20 years, symphonies have experimented in all sorts of ways, with concerts devoted to a single theme or a single composer or with multimedia presentations”, says David Lockington, MSO’s music director since 2007. “We have accepted that people have become more visually oriented and their attention spans are shorter.”
Audiences of decades were well versed in the works of Brahms, Beethoven and other composers. These days, Lockington provides a brief background before almost every piece, using a conversational style that suggests -- you probably know this, but let me remind you just in case.
One way to fill the house was to bring in the top name soloists, but these days the best-known names in classical aren’t all that widely known. And the top 20 are very expensive. So the Modesto Symphony has used other strategies – bringing in a soloist with a tie to the community, such as Broadway performer Jeremy Stolle, who came back to his hometown for the 2013 Holiday Pops concert, or featuring a piece by a local composer. In February 2012, the symphony orchestra performed “Gran Turismo,” by Modestan Andrew Norman. In the same year, Andrew was a finalist for the Pulitzer Price in music.
Guest artists also have included some promising up-and-comers. The opening concert of the current Classic Season, for example, featured 18-year-old violinist Randall Goosby, who is studying at the Julliard School in New York City. He may not be famous today, but concert-goers suggested he could be some day.
The challenge for the Modesto Symphony is to adapt in ways to make concerts interesting and entertaining, but not to get sidelined by bells and whistles, says Lockington. “Do you want to promote distractions when the goal is to focus on the core mission, the music?”
Lockington doesn’t think only about audience appeal in selecting music. He also wants to challenge the musicians, nearly all of whom are professionals playing in several orchestras around Northern California.
The Music Director also wants to mix it up a bit. While some concert-goers are content with a program of the old standbys, others are eager to hear the works of new composers or new arrangements. Still others find concerts a place to unplug from the daily life, even to close their eyes and doze for a few moments. “Any of those reactions is OK,” Lockington says. People need to find places to be renewed mentally, physically and spiritually. They might find that renewal in a book or a play or a walk along the river – or in listening to a symphony orchestra perform.
For eight decades, Modestans have had that last opportunity and it will be around for years to come. As Nickel, the Symphony CEO, says, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra is “84 years strong.”
Modesto Resident and Retired Modesto Bee Editor