A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Little Night Music

One day in 1974, Maestro George Cleve and a few friends were kicking back with some beers after a long rehearsal of Mozart's opera, "The Abduction From The Seraglio."
In true Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland fashion, somebody said, "Wouldn't it be fun if we could play Mozart all the time?" Somebody else said, "We could make it an all-Mozart festival!" And the rest is history.
Thus was born the Midsummer Mozart Festival. This year's edition will run from July 15-25, with performances in Berkeley, Sonoma, Santa Clara and San Francisco.
And now Cleve and his friends have come up with another brainstorm: Wouldn't it be cool to pair some of the best teenaged musicians in the Bay Area with pros from the Midsummer Mozart Festival in a side-by-side mentor/student chamber orchestra?
Thus was born the Mozart Youth Camerata. Violinists Julie and Mia Kim of the San Francisco Opera sit in with the violins, violinist/violist Victor Romasevich of the San Francisco Symphony and violist Betsy London of the California Symphony sit in with the violas, cellist Wanda Warkentin of Symphony Silicon Valley sits in with the cellists, and bass player Tim Spears of the Santa Rosa Symphony sits in with the basses.
The Youth Camerata will make its debut on May 23 at the El Cerrito Community Center, followed by a second concert on May 30 at the Berkeley City Club.
I've had the pleasure of listening to some of their rehearsals, and let me tell you: These kids don't play well for young people; they play well, period.
"Very well, actually," Cleve corrected me. "Believe me, I'm no less demanding with them than I would be with a professional orchestra. The only difference is that their response is even quicker."
I had the even greater pleasure of hanging out with a few of them: violinists Maya Ranchandran, a junior at College Prep; Ashley Mao, a sophomore at Head Royce; Albert Yamamoto, a 7th grader at the Crowden School in Berkeley; and cellist Franz Zhao, a sophomore at the School of the Arts in San Francisco. And I've never met nicer kids in my life.
There's a lot more to them than just their prodigious musical talent. Maya runs cross-country, plays soccer, interns at the Lawrence Hall of Science and never misses an episode of "Bones" or "Glee." Franz plays tennis and ping-pong and listens to a lot of "J-Pop" - Japanese pop music. Ashley is getting seriously into tango music. And Albert is a huge hip-hop fan.
But they also love Mozart, although playing him is a lot tougher than it sounds.
"On the surface it seems easier than it is," says Maya. "But to sound good, you have to understand the nuances and phrasing."
Franz agrees. "In terms of notes, anyone can play Mozart. But to play it well, you have to truly understand the music, which is a lot more challenging."
"He always keeps you on your toes," Ashley concurs. "There's always something new, no matter how many times you play it."
But curiously, none of them have ambitions to be a composer when they grow up.
Albert explains, "Mozart already took all the good ideas."
For more information about the Camerata concerts, visit midsummermozart.org.

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