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Fresno Composer Fuses Classical, Mariachi, To Bring Music To Kids

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Rebecca Plevin
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Valley Public Radio

This weekend the stage of the SaroyanTheatre will be filled with hundreds of young musicians, with hundreds more in the audience. It’s all part of an effort by a Fresno composer to break down the boundaries between classical music and mariachi, and to bring young audiences into the world of music, in a fun, interactive way. Valley Public Radio's Rebecca Plevin reports.

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It’s Sunday afternoon and the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra is rehearsing a new, mariachi-inspired song.

Dr. Thomas Loewenheim, the musical director of the orchestra, leads the young musicians through the piece. He instructs them to play louder, faster, and with more feeling. He encourages them to move to their own music. He coaches them on how to perform an authentic 'grito Mexicano.'

The piece they’re practicing was written by Benjamin Boone, a composer and Fresno State music professor. It’s called ‘Fresno Sin Frenos: Mariachi Madness,’ or ‘Fresno without Brakes.’

When the orchestra debuts it this weekend at the Saroyan Theater in downtown Fresno, it could truly be unstoppable.

“One of my main goals in the piece is to break the fourth wall, meaning the separation that happens in Western music between the audience and the people that are on the stage,” Boone says. “I really wanted to involve the audience in a way that would keep the audience engaged.”

Within the music he wrote for the 300-member orchestra, Boone created opportunities for the audience to perform.

“One of the things I don’t like about most classical concerts is that the audience is supposed to sit on their hands the entire time, and sit there and be a good receiver,” he says. “In other cultures, it’s not that way - the audience are active participants.”

Fresno sin Frenos’ is not your average classical music concert. During the piece, elementary school students will bang and shake instruments they made in their classrooms, to rhythms Boone taught them during school visits. The entire audience will be invited to clap, stamp their feet, and yell the ‘grito.’ They will all be guided by a separate, audience conductor.

“I want the audience to feel free to stand up and dance,” Boone says. “There’s a place where they get to yell and just have a really good time. Because isn’t that what music really is bout? Isn’t that what attracted people to music in the first place?”

When Boone began working on the piece, he knew it would feature audience participation. But the theme of the piece was open to imagination, says Julia Copeland, executive director of the youth orchestra.

“He would breeze in here into the office every so often, and just consult with us,” Copeland says. “‘Well, I think it’s going to be dinosaurs.’ We’d go, ‘Dinosaurs, OK, cool.’ Next week, it would be something else, so he had a lot of ideas going on.”

As he brainstormed, Boone says he consulted with his friend, Fresno State professor emeritus Manuel Pena, an ethnomusicologist and a Mexican-American music expert.

“Manuel was telling me what a history mariachi had in Fresno, and then he gave me a tune, that is a Mexican folk song played both traditionally by a marimba choir, but then also other mariachis, do too,” Boone says. “That’s where I got the concept, for using this tune and then mimicking and using some of the idiomatic gestures of a mariachi ensemble.”

Boone’s piece is based on ‘Las Chiapanecas,’ a well-known, well-loved mariachi song. It’s intended to celebrate the Valley’s musical heritage, and recognizes Fresno’s place in mariachi history. The city is home to Radio Bilingue’s ‘Viva el Mariachi’ festival, considered the oldest mariachi festival in the country.

Loewenheim, the orchestra conductor, thinks the piece could become a model for how to take popular music, transform it into classical music, and then make it approachable and fun for audience members of all ages. He’s especially excited about its lasting impact on kids in the audience, who could be getting their first taste of classical music.

“They feel like they’re performing on the high level of the symphony orchestra, and that feeling then usually generates a passion and love for music that they then go home and say, ‘mom, I want to learn a piece,’ or ‘I want to do this,’ and then they take it much more seriously, and just fall in love with it,” Loewenheim says. That, “is what we all want, because we believe that culture is one of the most important and maybe neglected aspects of life in the 21st century.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFkLreGOJLM

That budding interest in music was palpable last week, when Boone took ‘Fresno sin Frenos’ to a kindergarten classroom at Edison Bethune Charter School. The kids will participate in the Sunday concert, so Boone prepared them for their own musical debut. He sang part of the music, and then demonstrated when to clap to the beat.

Once the youngsters mastered that, Boone instructed the kids to beat on the instruments they’d made – painted paper plates, stapled together and filled with dry beans. They stamped their feet, and practiced their 'gritos.'

During Sunday’s concert, called ‘Youth Music Extravaganza,’ these students and others will jam from the audience, as the orchestra performs on stage. The Roosevelt High School mariachi band and a local dancer will join in, too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=comol9XzU9Q

“I like to think that it says that Fresno already has this huge wealth of every kind of resource, cultural art resources in particular,” says Copeland, the orchestra director. “It’s all here already, and we’re just drawing attention to it, kind of pulling it together in our own way.”

She says the piece also showcases the next generation of talented, young artists in the Valley.

“We’re hoping that we’re telling the world, ‘here we come, watch out, we’re coming with all of our talent,’” she says.

The Youth Orchestras of Fresno will debut Boone’s piece on Sunday afternoon at the Saroyan Theater in Fresno.  The piece will be performed again at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on June 21st.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.