A symphony concert like no other

DOWNEY - Talk about musicians wearing many hats!The professionals of the Downey Symphony Orchestra raised the bar on that one last week when they played an otherwise respectable program wearing Viking horns, a fireman's helmet, pilot goggles and assorted undefinable furry things perched atop their heads. But after all, the audience was composed entirely of third-graders, who understand such things. And it was Halloween. This was the annual Music in the Schools concert presented for all of Downey's third-grade students, who arrive at the Civic Theatre in wave after wave of school buses. The theater fills three separate times, the orchestra plays three separate times, until every last one of those 1600 kids has heard a true, live orchestral concert by a full symphony orchestra. They were a model audience, already informed on musical basics by the Symphony's outreach programs, bolstered by teachers and parents, and bringing their very best manners and overflowing enthusiasm. As Rio San Gabriel students waited to be seated, we asked a few of them, Are you excited to hear an orchestra? (yes yes yes yes yes) Do you know what an orchestra is? One girl spoke up. "I do. It's a group of people who play instruments." Couldn't be said better! Then Conductor Sharon Lavery is introduced and the music begins with Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," in which every instrument is shown and blown. Or struck or bowed or expertly diddled with. This work brought back our wonderful friend Joyce Osborn as narrator, whose late husband, Tom, was our Music Director for 20 years. Halloween shivers came next with Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," and of course Sharon Lavery slips into her witch hat and long cape and conducts with a broom. She involves the kids in recognizing themes with appropriate hand wiggles, and even adults seated among the children enter in, grinning and wiggling. Meanwhile, up on stage, unflappable musicians produce flawlessly around their tricky costumes. An intrepid violinist plays on, despite the gigantic butterfly fluttering across her back. In the brass section, three trumpeters wear hard hats and dayglow vests. The bass trombonist takes a bow as Harry-Potter-Grown-Up. Alpine liederhosen and a Tirolean hat in the French horns, The Mad Hatter in the violas. A curvy red Satan with cute matching horns plays piccolo. Purple wig, orange wig, flaming cascade of red wig, thick Germanic braids, cowboy hats. Concertmaster Carolyn Osborn in jazzy Mardi Gras glitz and feathers. And the only guy who could wear a magnificent wide sombrero did so -- without blocking the players' sightlines. Ole to the snare drummer. This is an exceptional year, even without the costumes. We lost funding for the Third Grade Concert when the economy crashed, and couldn't restore it until now when a loyal supporter of the Downey Symphony, Helen Hoag, stepped in with her generous magic wand, thrilling us to the core. Add to that the marvelous no-nonsense logistics supplied by the District's Elementary Education division under Denise Takano, and you have this miracle. Thank you to Janice Hobson and Wanda Iacovitti, and their view of Teacher Specialists, who kept the morning's high spirits and precision timing as effective as ever. To complete the program, there is music from the film score for "Harry Potter' and stirring stuff from Mt. Peter Tchaikovsky. Downstage are two stalwarts of this orchestra, bending competently over their string basses. Mark Artusio and Denise Briese have performed countless times here, always in proper concert black. But ah, this time - this time Mark is in black, yes, but it's a Dracula cloak lined with scarlet satin. His hair is slicked back, medallions clank about his neck, the shirt has flowing sleeves. Eat your heart out, Bela Lugosi. And Denise went to her dad for inspiration. He was a dentist in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict. She wore his long khaki trench coat, chevrons still sewed to the sleeves, and his well-worn boots, "surprisingly comfy." Like everyone else, they're having a blast. It was that kind of morning, and no one at that concert will ever forget it.

********** Published: Nov. 7, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 30

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