Strings steal the show at Fresno State music academy

The Fresno BeeJune 25, 2014 

Marina Ryssman likes a challenge.

She started playing the double bass — the giant of the violin family that looks like it eats six or seven violas each night for dinner — when she was 10, even when people told her someone as short as she was couldn't deal with the bulk of the instrument.

Picture how cute it was: little girl lugging around stringed behemoth. She used to have to get four of her friends to help her transport her double bass, but she made it work.

"I like proving people wrong," she says.

Now 18, the Buchanan High School graduate can slap the instrument on her back and crowd into an elevator with her friends for a photo shoot promoting FOOSA: The String Edition, otherwise known as the second year of the Fresno Opera & Orchestra Summer Academy.

About 70 students, a mix of local and international players, have been busy for nearly two weeks with intensive lessons and rehearsals at the Fresno State campus. They're ready for the academy's final weekend, which includes three concerts open to the public.

This year's festival is open to young performers who play violin, viola, cello and double bass. Unlike last year's inaugural event, there's no opera.

"That 'O' in FOOSA is silent this year," says Julia Copeland, executive director of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, which is sponsoring the academy along with Fresno State's College of Arts and Humanities.

For Valley classical musical fans, it's a chance to hear talented student musicians and their acclaimed teachers during a time of year in which performance opportunities slow way down. That's even more important now that the CSU Summer Arts program, which was at Fresno State for many years, moved to CSU Monterey Bay in 2012.

There's a long tradition in Europe and the United States for talented young musicians to go off in the summer to intensive music camps and academies. There they are taught by professional musicians, most of them professors or players in professional orchestras.

But such out-of-town opportunities can be very expensive when factoring in housing and airfare. Having a local academy is a great advantage, says Thomas Loewenheim, a Fresno State professor of cello and the academy's music director.

"The reason that we're doing it here is that I have a strong feeling that the kids need this," Loewenheim says. "We don't want them to sit home and watch TV in the summer — we want them to practice."

As in most fields, classical music is built on relationships, and Loewenheim and Copeland turned to longtime friends and colleagues for the academy's faculty. Some teach in Fresno State's music department, including violinist Limor Toren-Immerman and double bassist Bruce Bransby. Others drop in from out of town, including violinist Lorenz Gamma (CSU Long Beach and CalArts) and cellist Tom Landschoot (Arizona State University).

The faculty members will offer a recital by themselves tonight at Fresno State — which will be a chance for students to listen to their mentors in action. But the biggest learning opportunity comes when the faculty members play together with the students, which will be the set-up at Sunday's final concert.

"It's a recipe for success to mix the ages," Gamma says.

In theater and ballet, mixing artists of varying experience levels is often done with great success. (Think of the summer stock theater model of bringing in a couple of professional actors in lead roles to combine with an amateur cast.) It works especially well with orchestral music, Loewenheim says, because younger players feel more confident — which makes them play better.

"It really doesn't sound like a youth orchestra playing because the faculty brings it up to the professional level," he says. "That is what is such a miracle about it."

So far, Ryssman — the young double bassist — has been thriving on the intensive atmosphere, which includes private lessons every day and lots of rehearsals, along with a chance last weekend to play at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Ryssman will be attending Fresno State in the fall to study with Bransby. Getting to sit alongside her teacher and play together is stretching her in good ways.

"Oh, man, I've gotten a lot better," she says.

And don't worry about her: She'll get that double bass to wherever it needs to go.

FOOSA: The String Edition

8 p.m. today: Faculty chamber music recital

8 p.m. Saturday: Gala student concert

4 p.m. Sunday: Final concert featuring both students and faculty members.

All events at Fresno State Concert Hall. Concerts are free, with suggested donations of $15 for the Friday and Sunday concerts. Details:

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, or @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at

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