An all-class reunion is something one wouldn’t want to miss — especially when it involves decades of musical talent coming together to perform on one stage.
About 50 alumni of Youth Orchestras of Fresno (YOOF) will join their childhood orchestra and its current young musicians for a special 65th anniversary concert at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 29 in the William Saroyan Theater in downtown Fresno.
The Youth Orchestras were first formed in Fresno in 1950 as a string ensemble. In 1953, the group added wind and percussion instruments. Today, the group is made up of about 240 young musicians age 6 through 18. About 100 of them are Clovis residents.
Julia Copeland, YOOF’s executive director, said about 50 returning alumni players are expected to join their childhood orchestra onstage on May 29.
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“Alums love to come in and do things,” Copeland said. “We always have alums working with us. We have alums that are coaches, they’re all around town, they’re all the music teachers, they’re everywhere. They’re also out with international careers, we have students everywhere in all the best schools.”
The dedicated orchestra students practice once a week throughout the school year, from one and a half to two and a half hours per week depending on the skill level and age of the players. Many children join YOOF as young as age 6 and then continue through until they graduate high school. They perform at least five to seven concerts per year. Copeland said that every year, about half of the kids who graduate from YOOF as seniors in high school go on to major in music in college.
One such alum is Joey Bohigian. He was a part of YOOF for four and a half years, first as a percussionist and later as a percussion coach for the orchestra. During high school, around the time he joined YOOF, he started composing his own music.
Bohigian graduated from Buchanan High School and then attended Fresno State as a Smittcamp Family Honors College Scholar. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music Composition with a minor in Armenian Studies and was honored as a 2015-16’s President’s Medalist, the university’s highest academic honor.
While at Fresno State, Bohigian composed a work to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. His compositions have been performed by orchestras around the world. Bohigian is now studying in the Music Composition masters program at Stony Brook University in New York and composing for several different ensembles.
“My favorite part of YOOF was playing great music with my friends and the high quality of the performances,” Bohigian said. “I think playing in YOOF is a special experience because of [YOOF music director] Dr. (Thomas) Loewenheim’s direction. He picks challenging music and pushes the performers to improve on many levels every week.”
The 65th Anniversary Celebration Concert will feature three pieces from Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia”: Mussorgky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and Bach and Stokowski’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” The orchestra will also play an additional Mussorgky piece, “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
“They’re really fun for the audience and the players alike,” said Copeland of the concert’s pieces. “And we’ll have everybody playing, even the little kids from our after school violin program. They’ve been working on that, so it’ll be a big crowd on and off the stage while playing simultaneously. It’ll be exciting.”
Copeland also said the pieces they’ll be performing are very difficult.
“Not for kids at all,” she said, before changing her thought. “I shouldn’t say that; these kids can do anything. We always say that, and the kids step up to the plate, every time.”
Copeland also talked about how incredibly dynamic YOOF’s music director Dr. Thomas Loewenheim is.
“He has an uncanny ability to make any group sound good,” she said. “None of us, not one of us, can understand it. We all are amused by this and amazed by it. It’s very wonderful.”
YOOF’s mission is to “cultivate musical excellence and a spirit of cooperation in young musicians throughout California’s Central Valley.” It is a group dedicated to the principles of access, excellence and inclusion.
In dedication to their principles, all of YOOF’s concerts are free.
“We don’t charge for the concert, though we do hope that people feel generous and want to see the orchestra go on for another 65 years, so they’ll bring their donations in hand,” said Copeland. “But we don’t charge for any of our concerts. It is always possible to get in free.”
When asked about what makes the orchestra so special, Copeland said, “Of course it’s the kids. And the skills and the music, and the ambience and the fact that orchestra is all about reaching agreement.”
Copeland, the current student musicians and the many alumni returning for the concert on May 29 are excited for the show they’re putting on.
“It’s a program that’s fun to listen to, fun to watch and super fun for the musicians,” Copeland said.
What: Youth Orchestras of Fresno 65th Anniversary Concert
When: 4 to 6 p.m., Sunday, May 29
Where: William Saroyan Theater, 700 M Street in downtown Fresno
Cost: Free, but donations are gladly accepted