Rhapsody in blue jeans

Jewish youth orchestras around the globe

Gary Sheldon has conducted jazz greats Branford and Wynton Marsalis. He has studied at the Juilliard School in New York and under such masters as Leonard Bernstein. He has conducted the San Francisco Ballet’s orchestra and the Marin Symphony.

Then he had children. And his professional goals shifted a bit.

He knew he’d love to send his infant twins to a Jewish school when they outgrow their diapers, but also knew he’d hate not giving his children access to a full music program.

Then, he had an idea: What if he helped start a community youth orchestra, thereby growing the opportunities for young Jewish musicians, and eventually, his own kids?

On June 3, Sheldon will hold the first auditions for the Bay Area’s new Jewish Community Youth Orchestra — believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States. It is open to teens across the Bay Area.

“Jewish culture and Jewish music lies very deep in our Jewish identity,” says Sheldon, a Tiburon resident and member of Congregation Kol Shofar.

“This is going to be more than just sitting down and playing the notes … Any opportunity we have to expose our children to Jewish culture and music only makes them richer as young Jewish adults.”

Teens in grades seven through 12 are invited to audition. Rehearsals will be in San Francisco every Monday afternoon beginning in September. Sheldon is looking for a variety of musical instruments for the orchestra, including strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion — and he’s seeking strong singers as well.

The Jewish Community High School of the Bay is providing him with space for rehearsals and performances in its newly renovated 200-seat theater. The school is also helping to fund the orchestra until it can become an independent nonprofit organization. The school’s music instructor, Eric-Richard de Lora, will serve as associate conductor of the youth orchestra.

“The biggest goal is to try and bring as many young Jewish musicians together to play music by Jewish composers, known and unknown,” de Lora says.

While the Zamir Choral Foundation has provided adults and teenagers with the opportunity to sing Jewish music in a chorus, orchestral Jewish groups are rarer. That’s because, according to Matthew Lazar, director and founder of Zamir, it’s harder to identify what’s Jewish about instrumental music.

Meanwhile, he says, the foundation’s teenage HaZamir chorus serves two purposes: to help music novices develop their voice, and to help unaffiliated Jews find a new path to Judaism.

“I think of it as a musical minyan,” he says.

Mark Kligman, professor of Jewish musicology at Hebrew Union College in New York, notes that music is often overlooked as a powerful tool to connect people to Judaism. Yet today there are vibrant, expressly Jewish musical outlets for people to explore, he says.

He particularly cites the Zamir chorus, which started as a grassroots group in New York and spread to 15 U.S. cities and a group in Israel. Also, says Kligman, there are about 40 Jewish a cappella groups on college campuses today — some with clever names like the Shabbatones (University of Pennsylvania) and the MeshugaNotes (Ohio State University).

And in urban centers like New York, Kligman says, popular music venues hold Jewish music festivals that encompass klezmer, reggae, rock, folk and jazz.

“Music is a great way, an important gateway, to access Judaism and culture in a way that really transcends history, religion and denomination.”

Sheldon’s Jewish Community Orchestra will have no shortage of music to play, Kligman explains.

“There is such a treasure trove out there of orchestral and chamber music written by Jews, and there are many leading composers today who are openly Jewish and express their Judaism in their work in a real and open way.”

Sheldon agrees. In fact, he’s already contacted one composer to see if he’d be willing to adapt his original piece — originally intended for six musicians — for a larger orchestra to play.

The veteran conductor is thrilled that his inspiration, which he hatched when his wife first became pregnant, is now, about a year and a half later, seeing the light of day. Sheldon’s also quite excited to give young people another avenue to play classical music — especially since a growing number of schools have reduced their arts programming due to budget constraints.

While the existing San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra is wonderful, it has only a limited number of slots for talented musicians, he notes. The Jewish Youth Orchestra could, in fact, be as small as 10 musicians, or as big as 50 — depending on who auditions.

“This will be an orchestra especially geared to serious music students who are committed to working hard,” Sheldon says.

“But, that said, people shouldn’t be gun-shy. If you’re a young musician who wants to try out, then please come in and play for us. Don’t be too humble.”

S.F. auditions slated for youth orchestra

Jewish Community Youth Orchestra auditions will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 3 and 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 5 at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, 1835 Ellis Street, San Francisco. Students in grades seven through 12 are eligible.

Candidates should prepare a three-minute solo of classical repertoire, such as a sonata or concerto movement, and will be asked to sight-read a short excerpt. Vocalists will audition separately, June 10 and 11, with times to be announced later.

For more information, contact Eric-Richard de Lora at [email protected], or (415) 345-9777 ext. 125.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.