Fifth graders enjoy an afternoon to remember

, in one space, in the company of 1,702 fifth graders.Recently all those students were delivered by school buses in three separate batches, each an hour apart, to the Downey Theatre, where the kids were about to get an earful. A first-time observer would expect chaos, lots of noise, everything running late. But this is an annual event, a project of the Downey Symphony's Music in the Schools program when the students get to hear a live orchestra in concert. It's been going on for 11 years, in collaboration with the Downey Unified School District, and everyone's got their act down. Leslie Jones directs the district's Instructional Support Programs. She conferred with her staff for weeks to ensure another faultless, ultra-smooth operation. Bus drivers knew which city streets were under repair. Teachers and volunteers stood in place, holding posters high to direct schools to their sections in the theater. Kellie Bernd from the district shepherded enormous lines of students to their seats, row after row, with all the economy and confidence of a really good border collie. On stage, members of the Downey Symphony wore kid-friendly colors. Symphony Board President Larry Lewis welcomed everyone and thanked the Kiwanis Foundation for funding these three performances - to the tune of $17,000. Then, once everyone was settled in, Conductor Sharon Lavery introduced the instruments in each section of the orchestra. These youngsters already know a lot about music from yearly visits to their schools by the symphony's Quintet. They had seen and heard, up close, the violin, string bass, clarinet, trombone and percussion instruments. But today the kids grasp at the length of a bassoon, the enormous convoluted mass of a tuba. Lavery opens the concert with the famous 4-note theme from a Beethoven symphony. "What's the number of that symphony?" she asks. Beating out everyone else, Matthew and Xavier from Maude Price yell out, "FIVE!" "Yesssss!" Moussorgsky's great work, "Pictures at an Exhibition," describes in music a series of paintings on view in an art gallery. The audience giggles at the ballet of gawky chickens, shudders deliciously as menacing music from that bassoon depicts an evil witch prowling the town, deep in the night, searching out naughty children. Erika, seated with her Carpenter Elementary classmates, grins and conducts expressively with a pencil, then hands her "baton" to Suzanna next to her. "We're best friends," Erika confides. Then it's time for our distinguished music director to do a quick morph job, right on the podium. Now in striped pirate hose, eye patch and swooshy hat, Lavery turns to her audience. "Raise your hands if you'd like to see me conduct with my sword." A thousand hands shoot up. "I was afraid of that..." and the kids eat up music from "Pirates of the Caribbean." Next hour the baton of choice will be a giant hook. Hook or sword, either one makes for a pretty commanding downbeat. For a terrific finale, wind and brass players from Warren and Downey high schools join the orchestra in Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" to exuberant applause, and a happy audience files out to waiting buses, even as the next long lines of fifth graders file in to hear their special performance. Quite a morning. Quite an experience. It would not have been possible without the far-sighted generosity of Downey's Kiwanis Foundation, which underwrote this educational outreach program. We all hope many of these young students will be inspired to explore instrumental music next year when they go to middle school. There's bound to be a budding bassoonist or two in the bunch! For more information, phone (562) 403-2944 or go to

********** Published: April 14, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 52