If Nancy Israel had her way, schools would play music in classrooms as students practiced long division and studied cellular systems.
“There’s no question learning and music go together,” Israel said, referring to studies suggesting a link between music education and students’ understanding of math and science.
Part of a cadre of philanthropists and musicians instrumental in developing Ventura County’s classical scene, Israel has watched California’s educational system abandon its musical offerings.
The only person sitting on the board of directors for both the New West Symphony and the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic, Israel bridges two sides of the county’s music world: a renowned orchestra increasingly asserting its place in the regional cultural scene and a nonprofit dedicated to highlighting developing artists by offering the opportunity to give solo performances supported by professional accompanists.
Launched in the early 1990s, the New West symphony for many years featured a Discovery Artists program that drew top-tier musicians to perform with its professional musicians. Recently, though, New West ran into financial strains and was forced to cut back on the program, even as it shifted its focus beyond Ventura County to West Los Angeles. Now the Symphony has three boards of directors, one in western Ventura County, one in the Conejo Valley, and one for L.A.’s West side, near which the New West has found a new venue in Santa Monica (it also hosts concerts in Oxnard and Thousand Oaks).
In the intervening years, meanwhile, Thousand Oaks-based pianist and educator Ed Francis — many of whose students have performed in the Discovery Artists program — launched the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic as an effort to feature young soloists from Ventura County performing with a professional orchestra.
“We provide a venue whereby gifted young musicians have an opportunity to play with a professional orchestra before a paid audience,” Thousand Oaks Philharmonic President Lawrence Blonquist said. “I don’t know of any other orchestra in the country that provides that opportunity, we may be unique.”
In its seven years, about 150 students have played with the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic’s orchestra. In that time, the quality of the students auditioning has steadily risen as more have heard about the program. Therefore, competition has tightened, Blonquist said.
“It’s quite amazing how many students there are, and there seems to be a steady supply,” he said. “It really has come from all over the county. It really depends on which teacher has the kind of caliber students of kids that qualify.”
In an effort to develop more appreciation and understanding of music among the general public, each concert starts with a short lecture about the music the audience will be hearing and the atmosphere in which the composer wrote the pieces being performed.
“This gives our audience an opportunity to see promising young musicians play early in their career,” Blonquist said. “It’s really a wonderful experience to see this music played at a very high level. It’s really a wonderful community treasure. As people discover our orchestra and come to our concerts there’s a kind of ownership that develops because we are local.”
Of course, the program also offers something to its performers.
“The experience of playing in front of a live audience in front of an orchestra is really critical to the development of these young musicians,” Blonquist says. “The dynamic of being able to play under a conductor requires a great deal of flexibility, maturity and competence.”
Francis, who currently works as the philharmonic’s executive director, says every arts organization, be it his orchestra, the New West Symphony or another group, is struggling to survive in an environment where there isn’t as much interest in the arts as there was half a century ago. Now, generations are growing up without ever having had arts as part of their regular education.
“It’s a bit of a tragedy for the community, in a small sense, and the culture in general,” Francis said.
His organization tries to help make music more a part of everyday life for the community by working to make it accessible.
“We try to price it to focus on families of young people,” he said. Indeed, the group often hosts a free concert at a church in Camarillo followed by a concert two days later at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, charging $20 per person.
Appealing to a broader audience, Francis said, helps develop a public that will revere the arts. Fortunately, he says, young people will often find their own way to the arts if necessary.
“I have a great faith in youth,” he said.
Francis, some of whose former students are pursuing doctorates at prestigious music schools such as Julliard and Indiana University and have gained national and international recognition, also was once involved with the Discovery Artists program. He still sees the importance it and his program offer.
“It’s important for emerging artists to have an opportunity to play with a professional orchestra,” he said. “It’s a built-in convenience.”
David Schneider, a former student of Francis’, has played with the New West Symphony and the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic. Schneider, who grew up in Ventura, graduated from the University of Southern California and is a doctoral student at Indiana University.
“Both the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic and the New West Symphony have given me and other young artists a fantastic and rare opportunity to perform with an orchestra,” he said.
Noting the different focuses for each organization, Schneider says the Discovery Artists program is but part of the New West’s entire focus, albeit one he described as “a rare and wonderful thing for a professional orchestra to do.”
He says the New West’s push into Santa Monica seemed strange for an organization based in Ventura County, but admitted to being out of the loop to how the organization may have changed in recent years.
“At one time you had to be from Ventura County to be eligible [for the Discovery Artists program],” Schneider said. “Perhaps increasing the field of competition raises the quality of performance, but it does so at the risk of obscuring the New West’s identity as a Ventura County organization.”
Israel, meanwhile, sees room for both.
“The Thousand Oaks Philharmonic, which I’ve been supporting for a long time, does give many young people a chance to perform and hone their skills and have a chance at furthering their young careers,” Israel said, praising Francis’ work. “I think [Francis] has done the most unbelievable job in this community.”
Israel, however, also noted the importance of the Discovery Artists program, whose rigorous audition process draws in some of the top young musicians in Southern California. By contrast, the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic focuses more closely on getting young musicians used to performing in professional settings at an early stage of their development.
“Both provide a wonderful service in the community to our young people,” Israel said. “I think that the more music we all learn and expose ourselves to, the better off our community will be. I think we have two gems in the community with both of these programs. Very often the ones that [Francis] starts with in his program become the stars in our program.”
Even Francis, who has also been involved with the New West Symphony, doesn’t wish any ill will toward the orchestra, even though it is drawing from some of the same audience as his organization.
“I certainly wish them the best because I’d like them to survive,” he said. “One venue that is successful will benefit others.”
While the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic holds multiple concerts each year, New West only puts on one Discovery Artists program per year. In fact, it had to call off the performance last year due to funding constraints. This year’s performers will be musicians selected in auditions for last year’s event.
But New West hasn’t abandoned its effort of supporting music education. Through its Symphonic Adventures program it brings 11,000 school children into the auditoriums its orchestra performs at in Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and Santa Monica to interact with the musicians and Music Director Boris Brott, and to learn about instruments and music. The visits are preceded by classroom preparation with audio and video tapes so students learn what they will be seeing during their visit. In addition, New West has a music van to visit students in younger grades and at summer camps.
“We are filling a gap in the education of children that’s missing from our California schools,” Israel said.
Neither program may have been possible without a former educator. Now retired, Eugenie Howard once was the director of curriculum for the Ventura County Superintendent of school’s office.
“Eugenie was the real moving force to the Discovery Artists program,” Francis said.
Howard, a New West board member, conceptualized the program in the early 1990s with former New West President Tracy Susman (the program was then sustained for many years by Marty Jantz while Howard attended to her family in the Midwest). Involved with the Ventura County Symphony, one of the New West’s predecessors, Howard recalled how that orchestra would host a statewide competition for pianists and instrumentalists. She suggested the idea again when the New West hired Brott. Originally reluctant about the idea of having the young musicians play a concert with the full orchestra, after Howard insisted, Brott said he would think about it if she could raise $5,000 in one day. Before he left at noon the following day, Howard had raised the money.
The first Discovery Artists concerts featured performances in Oxnard and Thousand Oaks. In Thousand Oaks, the events were wildly popular, with jazz from local high school bands on the outside patios of the Civic Arts Plaza before the main performance inside. In Oxnard, though, the events never took off, partially, Howard said, because the setup of the venue there meant the jazz was cut off from the main event and not as conducive to the festive atmosphere that kept people interested in the entire concert, even though Oxnard high schools were supplying the music.
The symphony began losing money on the Oxnard concerts, and its board of directors finally said the entire Discovery Artists program would have to be reconfigured to take place only once every two years.
“That was a death blow for us,” Howard said.
Now, though, there is new interest in reviving the program, and Discovery Artists has been revived. The event will take place again like it had before, although its only performance will be in Thousand Oaks (on April 12, see below for details).
Although separate organizations, Howard said the New West doesn’t compete with the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic, and called Ed Francis a “very good friend.”
“I applaud what he’s doing,” she said.
Now Howard is expanding her focus, working with New West Executive Director Nelson Dodge to lay the groundwork for a youth symphony within the organization. The idea is fed very much she said by the inspiration of Gustavo Dudamel, the 27-year-old set to become the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s next conductor in 2009. Dudamel, a Venezuelan, is the product of his country’s rich system of youth orchestras in which hundreds of thousands of children pick up instruments from an early age as part of their public education.
“I think [Dudamel] is a gift to California,” Howard said.
By contrast in California, arts and music has been eviscerated from public school curriculum. Thankfully, Howard noted, programs like Brott’s Symphonic Adventures and Ojai teacher Bill Wagner’s work with students in that town have begun to revive music programs in county schools.
“Music feeds our brains,” Howard said. “It feeds our brains as well as our psyche.”
Dodge said Howard was a visionary when she started the Discovery Artists program, but the program suffered when it was taken over by staff and didn’t have as much of the passion its board members and volunteers contributed when they ran it. Now that energy is being combined with the staff’s dedication, and the program should reinvigorate itself, he said. Meanwhile, expanding into Los Angeles County has helped bring new resources into the organization.
With Brott as the musical director, Dodge said, the New West has excelled and risen to the par of other symphonies in the region, such as those in Pasadena and Santa Barbara. With its rising prominence, though, the limits of what Ventura County could offer the symphony became apparent.
“As we have grown it and the quality has increased, it only gets more costly to do it,” Dodge said. About four years ago, the symphony was approached about performing at the Wadsworth theater in Brentwood, a prospect Dodge said was interesting because it offered the possibility of a third audience and new support. About two years ago it started to take hold, last year a board of directors for West L.A. was launched (New West now has three boards for each area it serves), and New West secured a venue in Santa Monica for its concerts.
“Now we’re starting to see that philanthropic support,” Dodge said.
Having three regional boards with three venues means the symphony can remain closely connected to the communities it serves, he said.
“How we see ourselves going forward is as one of the major regional professional symphonies in the Los Angeles region but with a very local connection and governance structure,” Dodge said. “What we’ve done is created a governance and administrative structure that is optimized for really maximizing our impact for these communities and ensuring that the New West is really ensuring the community support we require for an orchestra of this caliber.”
Discovery Artists, Dodge said, is still primarily localized in Ventura County, and most of its performers are from around Conejo Valley (In the next concert, one is from Thousand Oaks, the rest from Los Angeles County communities such as Agoura and Granada Hills).
“Discovery Artists is a very different product, if you will, from the symphony concert,” he says. “It’s featuring young, talented local kids that are promising and some of them will go on to professional careers, but there’s a local interest. Every year we have a different set of young people.”
Each year the family and friends attracted to the concerts change as the kids change, meaning there is a fluctuating audience for the series. To make sure musicians perform to a full house, he said, the symphony will, for the time being, only host Discovery Artists concerts in Thousand Oaks.
“It’s not like there’s a large following or fan base for these kids every year,” Dodge said.
That doesn’t mean the performers aren’t high quality.
“These kids are all pretty serious about their music, and if you look back at previous years many of the Discovery Artists that we’ve featured are emerging professionally at a national or international level,” Dodge said. “We’re kind of proud of the fact that we have the process that can identify this kind of talent.”
Even as the symphony reaches out to West L.A., it fills a niche in Ventura County, especially as fans of L.A.’s musical offerings retire to Ventura County and lose interest in battling traffic to make it to Downtown L.A.
“I think people look at L.A. and you think metropolitan this or that, the L.A. Phil, the opera, etc., that’s where the action is, but L.A. is a big place,” Dodge said. “Ventura is just far enough out that it’s not so easy to just drop Downtown to get your culture anymore. There really is a demand for high quality cultural entertainment. By doing what the founders of New West did, they had the foresight to make it possible to sustain an orchestra of this caliber.”
The 2007/2008 Discovery Artists Concert will be held April 12 at the Countrywide Performing Arts Center at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. Pre-concert entertainment by the
“Best of Ventura County” band and choir showcase starts at 6:15 p.m. The concert begins at 7:30 P.M. Tickets are available via a link on the New West Symphony’s Web site at www.newwestsymphony.org.
The Thousand Oaks Philharmonic’s next concerts will be May 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Camarillo Methodist Church (a free show) and May 11 at 2:30 p.m. at the Scherr Forum Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. That show is $20 general admission and $10 for seniors and students. More information is available at www.cwoto.org.