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Musical Kids Step Onstage

Perhaps someday, we’ll look back on the moment when Anabel Hirano hefted her trombone and began her Jewish Community Youth Orchestra audition as the start of something big.

Hirano, 16, might be headed for stardom and so might the JCYO, which organizers believe could be the first of its kind in the nation — an ensemble based in San Francisco, aimed at bringing together youths who wish to explore Jewish culture and tradition through music.

Auditions for students from across the region in grades seven through 12 began last month at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, where the orchestra will be headquartered; more auditions will be held at the end of the summer before weekly rehearsals start in September.

The nascent orchestra is the brainchild of Gary Sheldon, who is principal guest conductor with the San Francisco Ballet, longtime artistic director of the Lancaster Festival in Ohio and principal conductor of the Festival at Sandpoint in Idaho.

Sheldon said he aims to recruit, rehearse and stage as many as 60 young musicians, with performers from San Francisco Opera, the Marin Symphony and other institutions coming in to give master classes. He’s planning a December 2 concert likely to include “An American Selichot” by Gary William Friedman as well as Sergei Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes.”

The Friedman piece is particularly exciting, he said; Friedman wrote it for a small chamber orchestra, but is now working with Sheldon to adapt it for a larger ensemble — “one of the benefits of having a living composer,” Sheldon quipped.

A member of Congregation Kol Shofar in nearby Tiburon, Sheldon said that when the JCHS opened its doors six years ago, “I knew that I wanted to get involved in some way or another, but I was just finishing up with the Marin Symphony and I couldn’t figure a way. It all came together when I found out a little over a year ago that my wife was pregnant. One starts thinking in different ways.”

He was thinking about where his kids — twins now 6 months old — might attend school someday, and whether that school would have the sort of music program a maestro wants for his young maestri.

Eric-Richard de Lora, who teaches music at the JCHS, said the new orchestra fills a void at the school, which has no orchestra of its own but is happy to host the independent JCYO. “We know there are students out there who are practicing, who are studying…. This is a way to connect them to other Jewish young people who are making music.”

De Lora gives Sheldon credit for the idea — “I’m just thrilled to be a part of it” — but Sheldon said it’s coming to fruition “partially based on the strength of the rapport” they share. “[De Lora] clearly envisions another level here [at the school], and so I knew he would be a good partner in taking the next step.”

And so Sheldon and de Lora listened intently to the first round of auditions, nudging the young performers in the right direction the few times they stumbled. Each brought a brief solo that had been practiced, and sight-read something Sheldon provided.

For example, Hirano — a sophomore at San Francisco’s School of the Arts who has played with other groups, including the Peninsula Youth Orchestra — presented a selection from Telemann’s Fantasies before Sheldon had her read some Beethoven.

Flutist Rebecca Cohen, a 13-year-old eighth grader from Piedmont, was up next with two movements of a sonata in C major; she then read some of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41. “It’s just good practice to audition, to see what they think and get feedback,” she said afterward.

Emma Orbach, a 14-year-old eighth grader from Novato, displayed her viola skills with a Baroque gavotte. She said she’ll be attending the JCHS next year anyway, but a chance to perform with the orchestra makes it even more attractive. Her mother, Susie Orbach, agreed, noting that playing in a Jewish orchestra means not having to worry about rehearsals or concerts on the Sabbath or on holidays, as has happened in the past.

Sam Colman, a 14-year-old eighth grader from Los Altos Hills, said he fits in his viola practice with his piano practice, his chess playing and his video games; he offered a gavotte in G minor. Andy Colman, his father, said the orchestra offers “not only the culture… but being around musicians and having a chance to grow with musicians that are from a tradition that’s a little different from where we’re at in Silicon Valley.”

Pianist Larisa Faktorovich, 14, an eighth grader from Burlingame, said she doesn’t have so much performance experience — “I play piano to enjoy myself” — although she has volunteered as an entertainer at a local retirement home and now feels eager “to be a part of something” like the new orchestra. She auditioned with some of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, as well as a snippet of a work by her favorite composer, Chopin.

After the auditions, Sheldon pronounced the experience “very positive. If this is any indication of what’s to follow, it’s going to be a pleasure selecting young musicians. I’m jazzed by what I’ve heard so far.”

De Lora said they weren’t at all concerned that they might not have enough applicants. “It’s just a matter of the word getting out and people realizing this is happening,” he said. “From there, it will develop on its own.”

Josh Richman covers politics and legal affairs for California’s Oakland Tribune and Bay Area News Group.

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