Can you imagine my excitement as I strolled down Main Street in Ventura when saw the Reporter with the cello soloist for the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestras, Matthew Chen, on the front page (See “A tale of two orchestras,” feature, 3/20/08)! This 11-year-old musician will be playing the final movement of the Lalo Cello Concerto on June 1 in the Fred Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. He will be accompanied by our most advanced orchestra.

The concert will feature more than 200 young musicians in three youth orchestras ranging in age from 6 to 23. The concert is titled “Imagine.” Our younger musicians will be performing Music from the Chronicles of Narnia, Orpheus and the Underworld, Superman Returns, a Star Wars suite, music from Pirates of the Caribbean, along with a number of other favorites. In addition to the cello concerto, the youth orchestra will perform music from The Planets, by Gustave Holst, “Mars” and “Jupiter,” and the Beethoven Leonore Overture #3.

Now, imagine my disappointment when I found that the pictures I sent the Reporter did not acknowledge the young musician on the cover was a member of the The Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra. They did not even print his name. To add insult to injury, when I turned to page 15 and saw a picture of The Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra performing at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and read, “A tale of two orchestras, Ventura County is alive with the sound of classical music, thanks to the New West Symphony and the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic,” that, too, was very disturbing.

After reading the article and digesting its content, I was motivated to visit the office of the Reporter. There I was received graciously. I was introduced to the publisher, David Comden, and the editor, Bill Lascher. Both of these gentlemen attended to me respectfully and gave me ample opportunity to express my concerns. Mr. Lascher, who wrote the article, even invited me to write this letter and criticize his article. Whereas I don’t really have a reason to criticize Mr. Lascher’s writing, I do take issue with the very serious, significant omission of The Conejo Valley Youth Orchestras. Especially since the premise of the entire article is music education in Ventura County and they used our photos without appropriate credits. Don’t misunderstand, I am thrilled that the local press has taken interest and is publishing articles about classical music and music education. Both are near and dear to my heart, but to ignore the fact that our youth orchestras have provided opportunity to literally thousands of kids over 47 years is shameful and offensive, not only to all of our young musicians, but, also to the parents and board members who work so hard to provide these opportunities.

I cannot blame Mr. Lascher or the Reporter for these omissions; however, I do blame my friends and colleagues who know me very well and know what we do. Since they have decided that the contribution of the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestras does not warrant recognition, I will provide you with the rest of the story that was so obviously and disrespectfully omitted.
The Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra was created on the campus of California Lutheran University in 1961 by Betty Bowen and Dr. Robert Zimmerman. As the community developed, Mr. Elmer Ramsey was appointed to build a community orchestra which became known as The Conejo Symphony. Mr. Ramsey was an avid supporter of the youth orchestra and considered it part of the total picture of bringing music and music education to the east part of the county.

The Conejo Symphony and the Ventura County Symphony have since been absorbed into another symphony orchestra leaving the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra an orphan. There was a half-hearted attempt to continue this very important work; however, it really was a half-hearted attempt and was not properly supported.

There has been a need to provide high-quality music education as the public schools have waxed and waned in the area of the arts. The Conejo Valley Youth Orchestras have been filling this need for 47 years, and in the last 10 years have grown from 65 musicians to more than 200. It has also reached a level of excellence that will rival 99 percent of the youth orchestras in the country. This program is totally autonomous and not associated with a school district, college, university or a parent professional orchestra.

There are a significant number of our past orchestra members who over the years have gone on to pursue careers in law, medicine, dentistry and engineering. Also, we have graduates who are now professional musicians working around the globe. There are professional musicians who are parents of our musicians. These parents themselves were members of the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra, and now they attend our rehearsals and coach our members. This is a community treasure.

The Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra has been invited to perform at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Downtown Los Angeles on the Mark Thallandar Foundation Annual concert in February 2009. The orchestra is the only orchestra performing on this very prestigious concert. Twenty-five of these young musicians have been invited and will be traveling with 25 professional musicians to Vienna, Austria, in June 2009 to participate in the 2009 International Haydn Festival as the Westminster and Conejo Valley Youth Festival Orchestra. They will be performing in the Wiener Konzerthause, The Votiv Kirke, The Musikverein Golden Hall, The Royal Palace and St. Stephens Cathedral to mention a few. These are venues where Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and many of the most renowned composers of all time spent much of their lives working and performing. It is a unique collaboration of professional and student musicians that is not only a once-in-a-lifetime experience but will be a life-changing experience, especially for these young musicians.

I am disappointed in the people whom I know personally, who are using these children for their own personal agendas. If they are offended by my response to this article, so be it. The next time you read an article regarding music education in Ventura County remember, we are not only featuring our outstanding young musicians but, we are providing an outlet to all of these musicians and not just crowing about the marvelous music education we are providing to so many young people. We are actually doing it!   

Bill Benson is the artistic director and conductor of the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestras.