The Flute and the Trombone didn’t know each other very well before I interview them.

Playing together in a large orchestra, especially an ad hoc ensemble put together for an intensive, two-week marathon music academy, can sometimes be like that. You can end up hanging out a lot with people who play the same instrument. Mornings are busy with warm-ups, individual lessons and sectionals. In the afternoons, you crowd into a huge Fresno State practice room for lots of rehearsal and not much socializing. In years past, members of the FOOSA Summer Music Festival orchestra – a collaboration between the Youth Orchestras of Fresno and the university – trekked to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to headline a concert. A weekend overnight bus trip plus young people always meant instant bonding. Unfortunately, in the age of Covid, that ritual was dispensed with this year.

Pictured above: Jack Whitehouse, left, and Alyssa Santivanez, are members of the FOOSA Philharmonic. Photo: The Munro Review

But FOOSA, which is marking its 10th anniversary, still means family. There’s a shared musical connection here between these participants who have converged these past two weeks upon the Fresno State campus. It’s an unspoken agreement: Fervor in the service of performance perfection is not only expected but celebrated. This is not one of those times when it’s uncool to try harder.

One of the things I love about orchestral and choral music is the way it relies on large numbers of people coming together in a single, focused goal. For a sci-fi aficionado, think hive mind. For a sports fan, it’s a basketball team so in sync that all it takes is a glance between players to drive a play to the net. For the Blue Angels, it’s flying mere meters apart while going hundreds of miles per hour. It’s about connecting.

How else to explain the precision and cohesion of The Flute and The Trombone joining with 110 other people to play the monumental Mahler Symphony No. 5, which is what they did on Friday evening at the Saroyan Theatre? I was in the audience and basked in the unity of the musicianship, the triumph of the collective over the individual, and the synchronicity of brains and bodies working together.

I’m predicting the same at Saturday’s concert (7 p.m. June 25, Fresno State Concert Hall), which serves as the finale to the FOOSA festival. It features the FOOSA Philharmonic, the FOOSA Half-Day String Orchestra, and other ensembles and student artists, including the winner of the FOOSA Concerto Competition.

When I sit down a few days prior to meet The Flute and The Trombone, they might not have already been formally introduced to each other, but they already have so much in common that the conversation just glides along like they’ve known each other for years.

They’re both from the greater Fresno area. The Flute, 21, went to Kingsburg High School, and she just graduated with a degree in music from Ball State University in Indiana. She attended her first FOOSA at age 15, having already been a loyal member of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno. (Her non-musician parents dutifully drove her to rehearsal from Kingsburg every Sunday evening.)

The Trombone, 18, is a Bullard High School grad. This is technically his first official FOOSA experience, though he spent a lot of time on the sidelines during past festivals because of an older brother’s involvement. (Also, as a 2020 Covid grad, a lot of his high-school experience was wiped out, and he missed those years when the festival had to pause.) He just finished his first year as a music major studying trombone at the University of Nevada at Reno.

The trajectories of their lives have changed because of the impact of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno.

So I’ll go ahead and introduce them – to you, and to each other. Alyssa Santivanez is The Flute. Jack Whitehouse is the Trombone. Individually, they’re two small cogs in a mighty machine. Together, along with their fellow students and professors, they’re a musical force to be reckoned with.

 

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For the longest time, as a girl growing up in Kingsburg, Santivanez didn’t really realize that musical life existed beyond the band.

“I had never experienced an orchestra until I auditioned for an honor band here in Fresno, and they gave an orchestra option,” she says. “And I had no idea that that was a thing. I heard other people talking about youth orchestras. So from there on, every Sunday night, my parents drove me to Fresno State to work with Loewenheim and the Youth Orchestra.”

That would be Thomas Loewenheim, the artistic director and mastermind behind FOOSA. (He also leads the Youth Orchestras of Fresno and the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra.) Alyssa and Jack tend to call him by last name only, which I suspect is a common usage among the students; it’s a measure both of respect and familiarity.

“To me, Loewenheim is our best friend, our coach, and our dad, all in one person,” Santivanez says. “I wouldn’t say he’s tough in a negative sense. But I would say that he knows what we’re capable of, and he wants to embrace it and bring it to life. He has a huge vision in his head about how he wants things to go.”

The Munro Review

Thomas Loewenheim leads the FOOSA Philharmonic in a rehearsal for a Saturday concert at Fresno State.

Her involvement in FOOSA directly led to her choice of university – and beyond. It’s where she met the faculty member who would become her mentor: Mihoko Watanabe, a professor of flute at Ball State.

Loewenheim – who seems to know everyone in the orchestra world – draws upon his extensive contacts to bring together world-class players and educators for FOOSA.

For Santivanez, meeting Watanabe changed her life.

“As soon as I met her, I realized she was a very special person. And I wanted to learn as much as I could from her. Adjusting to college for me was not too difficult, because I knew Dr. Watanabe and I had worked with her all those summers. Each time she would bring more of her students to California with her. And so I got to know some of her current or past students and I got to know her better. So once I made the big move to Indiana from California, it was like I already had a second family over there.”

Once at Ball State, Santivanez continued to return to FOOSA, but in a different relationship to Watanabe.

“I went from being someone who met her students to being the student that meets the new people. So it was really, really special to me to end up doing that with her.”

In the fall, Santivanez will enter the University of South Carolina to work toward a doctorate.


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These special bonds between FOOSA faculty members and the students stick out to me.

Whitehouse got to know FOOSA’s trombone faculty member, Luis Fred, as a young trombonist. Though he wasn’t enrolled in the most senior group, the FOOSA Philharmonic, Whitehouse got to take some lessons from Fred, a trombone professor at the University of Central Florida.

“And he was really, really, really good,” Whitehouse says. “I’m kind of a tepid person when it comes to my personality and in speaking. And him being the opposite of that was good. Because I needed to become more charismatic. I needed to stop sort of shriveling up when I was playing and start being confident in myself. So, every year during FOOSA, if I could have another lesson with Dr. Fred, you know, I jumped at that chance. And now, actually being a member of FOOSA, I get to spend hours each day with him, and it’s great.”

Still, even with the robust list of faculty, which includes such Fresno notables as Limor Toren-Immerman, Bruce Bransby, Rong-Huey Liu, Lianna Elmore, Erin Adams, Matthew Smoke, Laura Porter, Matt Darling and Kelvin Diaz-Inoa, there’s one presence that can’t be escaped at FOOSA. If there were a festival-welcoming ice sculpture of an Important Person placed in in the Music Building lobby to greet festivalgoers – quite a foolish idea, actually, considering the triple digits – it would have to be of, well, you guessed it.

Whitehouse offers perhaps what might be the highest praise:

“You might start to get sick of someone if you’ve been learning under them for years and years and years, but you don’t get sick of Loewenheim. You know, he’s just a very good personality to have around. And you’re propelled forward and you’re playing because of him, not because of not through an iron fist, but just through general mutual respect for each other.”

 

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Loewenheim is famous for picking difficult repertory for his students. He doesn’t hold back. These are not the “Disney Jr.” versions of the great classics. Mahler’s 5th Symphony is long (five movements), requires a huge number of players (FOOSA puts 112 on the stage) and very, very difficult. The noted conductor Marin Alsop, who performed it with the London Symphony, described the ambitious work as akin to climbing Mount Everest. (And, yes, there are times when the brass players are probably wishing for bottled oxygen.)

On the night of the concert, the orchestra sounds crisp, confident and astute. Loewenheim is not a minimalist on the podium, and his big motions and fervent energy seem to draw from the musicians, and vice versa.

To me, the best part – the part that feels tremendously moving and meaningful – is the fact that the faculty members play with the students.

They sit at the same height. Their black concert dress blends together. They are scattered amongst the students because they’re sitting by section. From the audience, it isn’t always easy to even tell the age differences.

I think about the more individualistic arts. The student-teacher relationship can’t be as egalitarian when it comes to the more individualistic painting, writing, solo piano, etc. There’s a French-Revolution-equality feel to the orchestral version.

Not only do the students take lessons from their teachers; they make music alongside them.

I listen carefully for The Flute, though it’s hard to spot Santivanez where she’s sitting. The Trombone is easier to spot; Whitehouse is sitting on the top riser. They’re two small instrumental voices in a sea of sound, but on this night, they’re my voices. When I stand to applaud at the end of the piece, I clap especially for them. Together, we’ve all made music.