A Disney Hall concert for the ages
Pierce Yamaoka first pledged allegiance to the trumpet when he was 11. That was 18 years ago. Unlike many musicians who gently disengage from a musical instrument when they hit their 20s, his commitment to all-things-trumpet has only intensified. Now a graduate student at Indiana University’s world-renowned music school, Yamaoka is completely caught up in the world of his instrument: the insider references to pedagogical technique, the arcane trivia about professional players and their latest gigs, the devotion to hours of practice in the desire to stand out amongst a crowd of brassy hopefuls.
To him, world-class trumpet teachers are rock stars.
On this Friday morning, Yamaoka is a passenger on one of three nondescript white touring buses pulling away from a Fresno State parking lot bound for Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. It’s another trip in what has become an annual tradition for the FOOSA Summer Orchestra Academy, which under the direction of Thomas Loewenheim has been growing in recent years in prestige and reach. Advanced younger students, emerging professionals, and faculty from some of the nation’s best music schools come together for two weeks of intensive instruction. The academy culminates in a concert that not only celebrates Fresno State — the university’s administration is keen on building alumni outreach (and, one would assume, helpful donor rolls) in the Southern California area — but also offers a level of difficulty and musicianship appropriate to the world-class venue the Los Angeles Philharmonic calls home.
On the program for the evening, among other works is the fiendishly tough (and long) Mahler’s 6th Symphony.
“I have people all the time tell me, ‘I can’t believe you’re making kids play this,’ ” Loewenheim says.
An orchestra is at its most fundamental a collection of musical voices. (Some of those voices, such as trumpets, are louder than others). Together all those players become something greater: a single symphonic organism. Even the wardrobe promotes this uniformity. When everyone is outfitted in black tuxedos or black dresses they form one unit beneath the stage lights.
Yet the Fresno ensemble, most of them clad this morning in purple FOOSA shirts, is anything but uniform in terms of age and experience. There’s Alex Han, at 13 one of the youngest players, a violinist in the Fresno Youth Philharmonic (the advanced ensemble of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno). Faculty member Luis Fred, the principal trombonist of the Puerto Rico Symphony, is headed to Disney Hall with his 14-year-old daughter, Alejandra, who plays violin. Emma Quinn, a master’s student in harp at Arizona State University, jumped at the chance to study with Laura Porter, principal harpist of the Fresno Philharmonic. Bruce Bransby, former principal double bass player of the L.A. Philharmonic and a legendary Indiana University faculty member, is along for the ride. They will all play together, student next to teacher, newbie next to sage.
“It’s the only orchestra in the world where the players are 12 to 75,” Loewenheim likes to brag about FOOSA, which has morphed out of its acronym (it originally stood for Fresno Opera Orchestra Summer Academy, but the “opera” portion got dropped several years ago), yet the name stuck. This year the program partnered with the CSU Summer Arts festival, which is kicking off a run at Fresno State.
And then there’s Yamaoka, a University High School and San Francisco Conservatory of Music graduate who took off a few years between undergraduate and graduate school. Two years ago, he learned that a teacher he’d heard lionized was planning to teach at the Fresno academy: Edmund Cord, famed in the trumpet world.
“When I heard Thomas and talking about Ed coming from I.U., I was very excited to have the opportunity to study with him,” Yamaoka says.
Very excited? Loewenheim recalls that the moment was even more impassioned that.
“I remember that tears came down his face when he heard the news,” he says.
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At 10:30 a.m., just before the bus passes through Bakersfield, an exhausted Loewenheim — famous for keeping long rehearsal hours during the academy — tries a move you’d normally see on a red-eye flight. He stretches out on the empty seat next to him, extending his legs over the aisle with his feet on a third empty seat across.
It helps that the occupant next to his feet is none other than his mother, Susana Loewenheim, on a trip to the U.S. from her home in Israel. As an obviously major fan of the conductor, she is excited to see him perform at Disney Hall.
“I woke up at 4:30 this morning with the Mahler Six going through my head,” Loewenheim says a few minutes later. It’s harder to sleep on a bus than one might assume.
Audiences have been growing each year for the Disney Hall gig, he says. The concert is free, but advance tickets are required, and getting the word out each year is a challenge. This year, however, it is “sold out,” with a waiting list of 200 people hoping for no-shows.
Part of the success has to do with a more vigorous Fresno State alumni outreach, he says. And the concert promoter and producer, Dan Schwartz, a strong FOOSA supporter, put up 200 fliers in coffee shops and gathering spots in the downtown L.A. area. For some people, tickets to regularly priced events at Disney Hall are too expensive, and they jump at the chance to see anything there for free.
A couple of hours later, the buses arrive on Grand Avenue, and the orchestra members stream up the stairs to the artists’ entrance, drop off their instruments and concert clothes, then hop across the street to eat lunch in the Colburn School cafeteria. On the way in, Julia Copeland, executive director of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno and former Los Angeles Philharmonic player, bumps into Phil Bravo of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA). In the classical music world, connections are everything. Last year YOLA made a concert stop in Fresno.
“They know us here,” Copeland says of the Disney Hall staff. “What we’re doing is spreading Fresno everywhere.”
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Two years ago, after Yamaoka learned that Cord, his trumpet-teacher idol, would be teaching at FOOSA, he volunteered to pick the professor up at Fresno Yosemite International Airport. It would be the first time they met.
“You know how Fresno is in June. It was probably 108 degrees outside,” Yamaoka says. “Ed shows up and he’s wearing long pants, a coat and a hat. I say, ‘Hi, it’s very nice to meet you. You’re going to be really hot, so I’ll try to get you to where you’re staying fast.’”
They were having a nice conversation in the car when Yamaoka felt his air conditioning stall and fail. Then, while merging onto Highway 41, his 2005 Hyundai Elantra started steaming.
“I’m freaking out because I’m on the freeway, and I’m hoping we don’t die right there. And Ed Cord is right there with me. We made it to Shaw Avenue and we pulled off. I was so embarrassed that, of all days, that’s the day my car decides to die. But he couldn’t have been any nicer.”
Fast forward a year or so later, and Yamaoka decides to apply to the Indiana University graduate program. Who’s there to listen to him?
Cord, of course.
“He was very gracious when I had the audition,” Yamaoka says. “And now he’s my teacher. Everything all fell into place. It started with Fresno and FOOSA.”
First impressions aren’t always everything.
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On Friday afternoon, as the rehearsal gets underway after a lunch break, Loewenheim takes the podium to rehearse Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan,” another bear of a piece. The hall’s interior, lined with Douglas fir, feels warm and rich set off against the flamboyant floral upholstery, and is a marvel both aesthetically and acoustically. (It’s my first time to hear a concert there.) With 2,265 seats steeply raked and surrounding the stage on all sides, the musicians feel front and center — almost within arm’s reach.
Porter, the harpist, got to play for the first time at the hall in her first FOOSA performance four years ago.
“For the first hour I was there I was distracted by how good it sounds,” she says of the acoustics.
On the program is an original piece titled “Subnatural Delights” by Joseph Bohigian, a Fresno State graduate. (Bohigian majored in music composition and was honored as the undergraduate President’s Medal in 2015.)
Bohigian, who is now a graduate student at Stony Brook University in New York, leans back in his seat and listens to the orchestra play his piece, which he admits is a surreal experience.
After a run-through, Loewenheim turns to look behind him as the composer (and former student) and asks if he has any comments.
“Can the beginning be any slower?” Bohigian asks in a grateful tone.
“We can try,” Loewenheim answers good-naturedly. From teacher-student to conductor-composer relationship, this natural progression along the arc of music education feels particularly meaningful in this concert.
That generational sense of passing the musical baton extends to several special guests that join the academy players for the rehearsal and concert. There, seated up amongst the violins, is Guido Lamell, music director of the Santa Monica Symphony and a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Lamell is a stalwart supporter of FOOSA, volunteering his musical abilities now for the fifth year, and even travels with the musicians on their traditional trip to the Santa Monica Pier the day after the concert. (“He brings towels for the kids who forget,” Copeland tells me.)
And then there’s the august musical figure who slips into rehearsal a little late. I happen to be backstage at the time. A door opens and none other than Lynn Harrell, 73, one of the most famous cellists in the world, walks right by me on the way to the stage. He sits in the principal position. What a thrill it must be for up-and-coming cello students to play with a world master.
At the end of rehearsal, Loewenheim gives the musicians a pep talk.
“We’ve worked so hard, and we’re ready,” he says. “What we do here tonight is about what each member of this orchestra learned. Remember that music brings the world together. As long as everyone puts their heart and love into it, that’s the most important thing.”
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Will FOOSA reach the upper ranks of the nation’s most highly regarded intensive summer academies? Fresno State hopes so, and so does Loewenheim, who is constantly striving to increase the prestige and reach of the annual event. (“He can’t waste any time,” his mother told me when he was napping on the bus. “He’s always this busy.”)
At 7:30 p.m., crowds have lined up in the hall’s atrium waiting to be admitted to fill up the general seating. An invite-only gathering in the hall’s Green Room, consisting of Fresno State dignitaries and guests, is underway. Before the concert begins, the speakers include Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, the dean of the university’s College of Arts and Humanities.
The hall isn’t close to being filled, alas, with the top sections completely empty. (Free seats don’t guarantee much of a commitment from ticket holders, it seems.) But the audience is enthusiastic as concertmaster Limor Toren-Immerman and Loewenheim take the stage.
The program is palpable, powerful, emotional — a sturdy and inherently musical experience. “Don Juan,” vigorous and well-prepared, smooths at the end into a silence that almost seems mystical. Bohigian’s composition starts off slowly, just how he wants it, and gives various soloists chances to shine. And the Mahler — oh, that long and showy Mahler — booms through the hall, with the French horns hoisting their bells up like exotic birds parading their plumage. Then we get the famous moment when percussionist Robbie Darling produces a seismic bang of a sound with a hammer big enough to kill a dinosaur. The ending of the piece is almost scary, even though you know it’s coming.
And in the trumpet section? There’s Yamaoka seated on stage next to Cord, his teacher and the man he almost automotively broiled.
“It’s amazing to hear him play with such conviction and style,” he tells me afterward. “He has so much experience with this repertoire. He’s very dogmatic about details, but at the same time he’s so musical. You have all this framework that Mahler gives us; he’s so descriptive about how things are supposed to be played. But then when we get to the concert, I’m not thinking about that at all, because I’m so prepared.”
And thus the trumpet’s torch is passed from one generation to the next. In its short time as a venue, Walt Disney Concert Hall has already hosted many amazing performances. But none more important than keeping the fire of classical music burning brightly.
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