Mainly Mozart Expands Emphasis on Youth Programmingby Tina B. Eshel June 1, 2015
When you think of classical music, chances are you think of more mature participants playing and appreciating the sounds of yesteryear. Mainly Mozart has certainly garnered a strong local following from those with more traditional tastes but the baby-faced Michael Francis, Mainly Mozart’s musical director since Oct. 2014, suggests there may be another side to classical music that’s worth exploring. Plus, their remarkable youth orchestra for musicians aged 3-23 continues to do big things for the small fries.
Francis divides his time between the United States, where he balances his roles as music director and chief conductor for orchestras in San Diego and Florida; and Europe where he works as artistic director for a company in Sweden. The 38-year-old Brit graciously offered his age and attributed his youthful appearance to his place of birth.
“England has very little sun. We don’t age because we don’t have much sun,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m young at heart,” he adds.
On the issue of music and youth, he’s firm on the benefits of learning to play and appreciate music no matter your age. He started playing the double bass at age 11. He says some may think this is old for someone who went on to live a life of classical music, but for him, it’s a sign that it’s really never too late to develop a love for music.
In thinking about the power of musical performance, he says, “There’s something different to listening to music with others than with listening to it alone. For young people, whenever they go to a concert for the first time, they remember seeing it happening. You just don’t hear it. You see it too. It’s a visceral experience. Once they see it, once they hear it, they are automatically engaged.”
“I believe we all understand music to be important … the issue is, how do we get them into the concert hall,” Francis concedes. He’s confident and enthusiastic about music’s universal appeal. “The human condition hasn’t changed. The basic requirement of the human being, the human soul, hasn’t changed. Hence, Shakespeare is relevant today. The Torah is relevant today. Music is the same way.”
He expands on the Torah comment: “The connection I have to Judaism is through music. The Jewish music scene is so rich. Think of the great composers and great musicians. There’s a plethora of wonderful Jewish composers, performers and artists. There’s an extraordinary turnout.”
Max Opferkuch, clarinet and violin, and Joshua Goldstein, trumpet, are both 17 years old and musicians with the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra. They see music as part of their future.
“I never would’ve guessed that I would be totally enthralled in classical clarinet playing the way I am now,” Opferkuch says. “I guess something about the ensemble aspect of music, getting to play together with other like-minded people and beginning to understand how musical parts fit together into a bigger picture gave me a new appreciation for music, and I began to practice both violin and clarinet much more seriously.
“Upon entering high school, I joined MMYO on first chair clarinet [back then called San Diego Young Artists Symphony], which was my first introduction to orchestral playing, now one of my main focuses. From there I just became more and more involved in classical clarinet playing, and now I can’t see myself ever giving it up – it’s a huge part of my life.
“School band is great in its own ways,” he continues, “but orchestral playing is what has really advanced my musicianship and taken it to a deeper level. I love the repertoire, the people I’ve met, the conductor Mr. Constantino, and the musical opportunities the youth orchestra has brought me.”
Goldstein says he, “got interested in music when I took up piano at the age of 5. My family has always been very supportive of music. My mom plays French horn and my brother plays trombone, and it just came naturally to me.
“Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra has provided me an opportunity to expand my knowledge of orchestral music in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Hernan Constantino, the Advanced Orchestra conductor, is a unique character of fun and musical expertise. I got involved in the orchestra because I had many of my friends persuading me to join, I never regretted it.”
His advice for kids and parents who are even vaguely interested in learning to play a musical instrument: Just do it.
“Connecting with others through music is one of the most entertaining things you can do.”
Opferkuch is more upfront about the frustrations with those early days. “To anyone beginning to learn an instrument I would say: It can be extremely frustrating at first when you’re still learning to coordinate your fingers and make a sound that doesn’t resemble nails on a chalkboard, and there will be times you’ll want to give up. Playing never really becomes easy, but at a certain point you achieve some mastery of the physical instrument, and then it becomes less about playing the right notes and more about playing the music. That’s when it gets fun – don’t give up before you get there.”
The message is loud and clear. Music is powerful, visceral and cool. Music invites us to, “be open, to be emotionally naked,” Francis says. “That’s a powerful thing. That’s the great thing about art. It’s a very generous aspect of the human condition.”
Find out for yourself at a Mainly Mozart performance this June. The Youth Orchestra performs June 6 at 6:30pm for the free Overture mini-concert before the opening performance of the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra. The all-ensemble Youth Orchestra concert takes place on Sunday, June 7 2:00pm at the Balboa Theatre with tickets ranging from $20-$30. Tickets for the Festival Orchestra range from $25-$85 and can be purchased online. Mainly Mozart’s June Festival plays June 6-20 with a line up of five paid-for performances and five free open rehearsals at the Balboa Theatre. Tickets for these and all other musical events can be found at mainlymozart.org.