Anna Wittstruck conducting the Stanford Symphony Orchestra at the Avalon Casino Theater on Catalina Island. Photo by Gail Fornasiere.

Stanford Symphony Orchestra tours Catalina Island

A holiday tradition includes performances, educational outreach and a little karaoke.

In an annual tradition, 18 members of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra traveled down the California coast and then 26 miles across the sea to arrive at Catalina Island last month. This is the fourth year that the ensemble has made the trip to perform at the Catalina Island Museum’s Annual Holiday Symphony Concert at the historic Avalon Casino Theater.

The tradition started in 2013 when the Catalina Island Museum, under the leadership of then-executive director and Stanford alum Michael de Marsche, MA ’90 and PhD ’96, extended an invitation to Anna Wittstruck, the acting assistant professor and interim music director and conductor of orchestral studies in Stanford’s Department of Music, and the SSO to perform the first symphony orchestra concert in the island’s history. The orchestra has returned every year since.

Citing the tremendous impact the Stanford student musicians have on the island community during their brief stay, Wittstruck said of the valued tradition, “This concert program is so unusual and special for the people who live in Avalon, and we are always overwhelmed and sincerely moved by how much the community appreciates our musical presence.”

In addition to the holiday concert on Dec. 16, the orchestra members participated in a music education program at the Avalon School, convened for an informal chamber music performance, and followed that with a late-night karaoke session.

“Visiting the local school is particularly rewarding,” said Wittstruck. “Our students, as they introduce their instruments and interact with the younger students, discover that they have something to teach and something powerful to give.”

​This year’s concert program was created to complement the museum’s exhibition Art Nouveau and Graphic Art: The PAN Publications, 1895-1900. It featured works by Claude Debussy, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johann Strauss II and others.

Special guest Chen Zhao, from the San Francisco Symphony, performed a violin solo by Pablo de Sarasate. This is Zhao’s second visit to the island with the SSO, as he appeared as a special guest during the 2014 concert.

They closed the concert with the holiday favorite Jingle Bells.

“The program selection was a favorite among this year’s attendees,” said Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Catalina Island Museum. “For many, it opened the door to classical music in such a positive way. They left wanting to know more – to learn more. That is what we strive for each year. We worked closely with Anna Wittstruck to tie the program in with our current special exhibition, and it worked beautifully.”

Judy Hibbs, Avalon resident and member of the museum’s board, added, “I’ve attended all four years of this concert and this year’s program was the best yet! We are so lucky to have the opportunity to experience the talents of Conductor Wittstruck and all of the orchestra members. It is the highlight of our holiday season each year.”

The orchestra that traveled to Catalina included undergraduates, graduate students and alumni. Wittstruck said she finds this a good mix. “A special thing about bringing this combination of people together is that our most advanced undergraduate students get the chance to play alongside musicians like Chen, but also with our graduate students and alumni, many of which, in addition to attending Stanford, studied music at conservatories like Juilliard, New England Conservatory and San Francisco Conservatory. While there is a mix of ages and professional vocations, a high level of music-making brings these people together,” she said.

Classrooms and karaoke

Educational outreach coordinated by the museum and the public school on the island is part of the Catalina tour tradition, and this year the orchestra members gave two presentations at the Avalon School. The first presentation was for sixth-grade students who just started playing band instruments three months ago. Players talked about where they were from, when they started playing, and what they study at Stanford besides music, and then introduced the instruments they play and how they produce sound. The musicians talked as a group about the different families of instruments and played in different combinations so the students could hear how the sounds blend together and experience the different roles that different instruments play in the larger whole.

The second presentation was for third- to fifth-grade students. The orchestra used excerpts from the holiday concert to introduce concepts of melody, harmony and rhythm. The players introduced their instruments by playing different themes from the movie Star Wars.

Saturday evening, after a day of exploring the island, the orchestra met at the Avalon Grille for a chamber music performance. The music ranged from a sextet performance of the full Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence (with Zhao at the helm) to a Mozart flute quartet to klezmer arrangements. This was the final engagement on the official Catalina tour schedule, but not the final Catalina tour tradition.

The orchestra activities have varied over the years, but a staple is the Saturday evening group appearance at the local karaoke bar, El Galleon. One player, Andrew Lan, always brings his fiddle, and plays the violin parts to Devil Went Down to Georgia and I Will Survive while the players sing along.

“I always joke that this is our most serious musical event, but honestly what I love about this tour is that each year our players dive in and totally commit to participating in music making at all levels – discussing classical repertoire with arts patrons, performing incredibly challenging musical works at the Avalon Casino Theater concert, introducing third-graders to their instruments with Star Wars excerpts, and then hopping across the street to sing karaoke all night,” said Wittstruck. “There’s this amazing joy that threads everything together, that music is music is music, and in every context what makes it great is participating in it together. The high brow/low brow dichotomy that needles us classical musicians and frankly marginalizes us simply dissolves.

“We all have big hearts for music, and by the end of this trip, through these different interactions with the community, it always feels like love can express itself in all kinds of ways.”