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OC Register: "Orchestra Sparks Passion for Music"

Reporter Malia Mendez wrote a piece in today's OC Register about how two JSerra alumni and Orchestra Director David Amrein have created a community of musicians who play together for the love of music.

Orchestra Spark Passion for Music

Twice a week, the 55 members of the Orange County Community Symphony Orchestra -- who range from high school seniors to retired music teachers -- rehearse in a conference room at JSerra Catholic High School.

With their tote bags and backpacks strewn about the dark wood floor, they amble through George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" then charge into Arturo Márquez's "Danzón No. 2," a repertoire favorite. When conductor Sam McLellan can't make the call, the members vote on whether a trombone note should include a fall and whether they should run through bar 159 one more time.

The musicians arrive when the sun is still high and leave after the moon has replaced it.

"They all work full-time jobs or in school or a lab nine hours a day," the orchestra's president, Sofia Martinez Alvarez, said, "but it happens and comes together because they want it to come together."

While at home from college during the spring of 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Martinez Alvarez, a JSerra Catholic High School alumnus and recent University of Edinburgh graduate, reconnected with her old classmate Jack Hemphill and their high school orchestra director, Dave Amrein.

Martinez Alvarez and Hemphill worried about losing touch with their instruments during their extended stay at home, so Amrein invited them to join JSerra's practices.

"I've always emphasized community and family and de-emphasized competition and snobbiness in our high school orchestra," Amrein said. To him, inviting Martinez Alvarez and Hemphill back felt like a family reunion.

"We'd missed that community feel," Hemphill said.

After performing with the ensemble at its spring show, Martinez Alvarez lamented she hadn't found a group of her new peers who played not for a profession or for elite recognition but because of their delight in music.

"Why don't you start it?" Amrein chuckled.

Martinez Alvarez pitched the idea to a few JSerra alumni, and on June 5, 2021, 40 people attended the orchestra's first rehearsal. By July, Martinez Alvarez was the president of a full-fledged repertoire with nonprofit status and a board of seven.

"It was a really, really fast turnaround," she said. "A lot more people than I thought were excited about the idea."

Martinez Alvarez has played the flute for almost 13 years. When she got to college, though, she was intimidated by the rigor of campus music groups.

"Unless you're at the professional level, there really isn't a place for you to play like you did in high school," she said.

Knowing that others likely had lost touch with their instruments while at college or over the pandemic, Martinez Alvarez sought to create a space where they could reignite their passion for music. But she didn't want to limit participation to those her age, so she encouraged people to share the news with co-workers, past music teachers and their families. "Word of mouth through OC really spread awareness of us," Hemphill said.

That ever-extending invitation has attracted Orange County musicians from all backgrounds to the group.

"It's not about the hierarchy. It's not about the rules," Martinez Alvarez said. "If we get people to reconnect with that passion in a safe space, that's all that matters."

The Orange County Community Symphony Orchestra doesn't host auditions or have standard seating arrangements. There are no first chairs; instead, members distribute the solos among themselves.

This spirit of nonconformity also influences which pieces they choose to perform.

Hemphill, an 11-year alto saxophonist, said he is used to playing arrangements by Western classical composers, or the "old dead White men," as his University of San Diego wind ensemble peers call them.

"Some of the music is great and should stay, but there's so much other music around the world."

As symphony librarian, Hemphill hopes to uplift more diverse composers.

At its inaugural performance last August, the group debuted San Juan Hills High School alumnus Siddharth Piravi's first-ever symphony "Fleeting Life (The Butterfly)," which he wrote specifically for the group and dedicated to its members.

Typically, composers have several months to a year to create a concert-length piece, but Martinez Alvarez -- who has known Piravi since they were in sixth grade -- commissioned Piravi to write one in just two months. That sense of urgency birthed "Fleeting Life," which Piravi said details the life cycle of a butterfly "from birth to growth to its return to the soil."

Piravi expressed gratitude for such a unique opportunity, saying "it's not often that composers my age get opportunities like this." He was 21 at the time of the concert.

"Being a classical composer comes in many shapes and forms," Piravi told the audience that night. He said he hopes listeners felt a sense of sentimentalism and intimacy in the composition, which might be best categorized as modern classical music.

"Our dream is to uplift the voices of underrepresented composers in the music that we play," and performing "Fleeting Life" to 250 people was a beautiful example of that, Martinez Alvarez said.

Martinez Alvarez said nearly all board members come from minority backgrounds -- including herself as a Colombian American woman -- so they happily take on the challenges of finding and securing music by composers who share those backgrounds.

None of the board members is paid; they dedicate themselves because of their passion for the work.

"Everyone puts in an ungodly amount of hours to make it all happen, (and) it's so worth it because of that feeling we get," Hemphill said.

Amrein said he's confident his past students will follow Martinez Alvarez's and the rest of the board's example to become empowered leaders and composers.

"They're in charge of me now," said Amrein, who plays percussion for the group.

In the future, the board hopes their orchestra can expand into a national organization that helps make music more accessible to people of all ages and playing levels.

" We have very big dreams," Martinez Alvarez said, "but we're taking as many small steps as possible, so that when we look back, we can see how big the step actually has been."

After just four weeks of practice, the orchestra will host its second-ever concert at the end of the month. Details are pending, but the show will likely take place on the evening of July 29 at San Juan Hills High School.

With such a short timeline and many members who barely know each other, "in the back of the mind, it feels like it shouldn't work," said McClellan, who skipped his University of Edinburgh graduation to direct the ensemble this summer.

"It's not magic," he continued, scanning Tuesday's rehearsal room. "But it is something special."

Orchestra in mismatched t-shirts and jeans and shorts play horn instruments.

Victoria Kraus, left, secretary with the Orange County Community Symphony Orchestra rehearses with OCCSO at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)