Dreaming of Bulgaria in 2011

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Corona del Mar resident and philanthropist Elizabeth Stahr likes to think big.  Both she and her husband, John, are well-known and recognized for their significant giving of time, resources and talent to countless organizations.

But Elizabeth’s next big move will be perhaps one of the grandest to date, when she heads up a trip with nearly 100 Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra members and 13 chaperones on a once-in-a-lifetime excursion to visit and perform in Bulgaria. It will be the group’s first international tour ever in their 18-year history.

Why Bulgaria? you might ask. Well, as it happens, Sofia, Bulgaria, is the homeland of the incredibly talented and affable Pacific Symphony assistant conductor and PSYO music director Maxim Eshkenazy.

The 2010-2011 season is Maxim’s third with the Pacific Symphony, and he and Elizabeth have grown quite close since he came on the Southern California scene. The two recently returned from a preliminary trip to Bulgaria in preparation for the youth orchestra’s visit June 26 through July 5.

The trip will provide the students opportunities both to see a country few Americans visit, and to improve their musical skills and experience what professional orchestras encounter when they must play in different venues, with different acoustics and varying audiences. And it will allow them a chance to see how famous Maxim is in his own country, where he literally packs every hall whenever his legendary Eshkenazy family name is on the marquee.

This past June, 205 musicians, ages 13-18, auditioned to become members of the PSYO, of which 94 were chosen, including Newport Harbor’s own 14-year-old pianist Natalie Cernius. Since then another six have been added. The kids come from 47 different Southern California high schools – mostly in Orange County, but there are also a few who come from as far as Claremont, Los Angeles and San Diego to participate in the group.

Many of the kids go on to continue their music education at prestigious four-year universities including USC, Colburn Conservatory, Curtis Institute of Music and Northwestern. Last year, 24 students in the program graduated high school and 23 went on to study music in college.

This year, PSYO will perform three concerts in the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, as well as a concert on Oct. 16 in which they will play side-by-side with the professionals of the Pacific Symphony at their Family Concert, a highlight of their early musical careers.

I remember, as a young violinist playing with a similar youth orchestra in L.A., I had the opportunity to perform in a concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion conducted by the great maestro Zubin Mehta, narrated by actor William Shatner. It was an extraordinary experience I was given thanks to patrons and supporters like the Stahrs, as well as the music teachers and others who supported the orchestra, and it had a profound effect on my confidence and music skills.

As we anxiously awaited back stage, I stood near the doorway of Mr. Shatner’s dressing room. The door was open and he casually walked over to say hello. I was so shy and nervous I stared down at his shoes which were beautifully embroidered black Asian-style slip-ons. Not able to find any other words, I timidly looked up and said “I like your shoes.” He smiled and said in his familiar velvety voice, “Thank you! A friend of my wife’s gave them to me and she is in the audience tonight so I’m obligated to wear them, but to tell you the truth they are not very comfortable.”

Wow!  Personal insight on his footwear direct from Capt. Kirk himself! I was stunned and never forgot that brief encounter. As the stage manager gave us our queue to take our places, Mr. Shatner winked at me and I smiled a grateful grin of appreciation for his kindness in speaking to me. It helped calm my nerves and I was able to focus on the performance knowing we were all up there together – comfy shoes or not.

But back to Elizabeth and her trip with the PSYO.  No small undertaking, this journey of a lifetime. She has been working with two professional tour companies, as well as the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, who is arranging for the students to meet the king, mix with the Sophia Music School’s students and spend the 4th of July at the U.S. Embassy.

The total cost of the trip is $385,000. Elizabeth has worked tirelessly for a year and a half now to arrange for the most efficient, cost effective means of travelling while also providing a comfortable and enjoyable experience for the group.

So far, the majority of the parents and chaperones who are financially able have paid a minimum of $3,500 each, but approximately $40,000 is still needed to make sure all can go. The students are out fundraising, and Elizabeth is soliciting individuals and companies to donate whatever they can to reach their final goal.

If you would like to make a donation in help make this incredible journey possible for 18 of the kids whom Elizabeth is hoping to provide financial aid, please send your check payable to the Pacific Symphony, earmarked “Bulgaria” to 3631 S. Harbor Blvd., #100, Santa Ana, CA  92704. Or you can contact Elizabeth Stahr at [email protected].

Lynn Selich, a Newport Beach resident, is a weekly columnist for the Newport Beach Independent, associate publisher of Newport Beach magazine, and society editor for both publications. She can be reached at [email protected]




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