While the Pacific Symphony continues to raise its national profile through celebrated guest artists, active commissioning of new works by significant composers, and a constant drive towards new ways of presenting the western canon, it also strives to be a local orchestra.
Woven into its DNA is an awareness of its start as a group of students and studio musicians operating out of Cal State Fullerton. Summers may find the symphony setting up for outdoor concerts in Mission Viejo or Orange. This year’s Nowruz festival concert marking the Persian New Year, and its Lunar New Year concert—laden with Chinese folk music—are two examples of how the symphony is reaching out to the generationally, ethnically and geographically diverse communities it serves. It’s reaching upward and outward at the same time.
And on August 31, thanks to a recent grant from the American Orchestras’ Futures Fund, a program of League of American Orchestras, the organization will continue its engagement with local communities through the “Canto de Anaheim” performance. Taking place at Anaheim’s Pearson Park, “Canto de Anaheim” is a multi-disciplinary look at the city’s past told through the stories of its unsung heroes, of several immigrants from Anaheim’s past and present who have had a substantial impact on their community.
Narrated by Los Angeles Times features writer, columnist (“¡Ask a Mexican!”) and Anaheim native Gustavo Arellano, with script and direction by Sara Guerrero, founding artistic director of the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, “Canto” will blend drama, personal narrative, and classical music to tell the overlooked story of Anaheim, the parts that don’t involve Disneyland or sports teams. The music, an artfully selected program of works from Revueltas, Marquez and Moncayo among others, will feature a Pacific Symphony brass and percussion ensemble under the direction of conductor and arranger Greg Flores. The show will also feature original music written for the performance, plus appearances by R.H.Y.T.H.M.O Mariachi Academy and guitarist Moisés Vázquez.
While the grant served as an initial spur, that left the symphony with a basic question: now what?
“Last year the Pacific Symphony got a grant to do work with the Latino community,” says Arellano, “and they came to me and said ‘You know O.C. and you’re from Anaheim. Who do we meet? What do we do?’ And I gave them a list. They got back to me and said, ‘Can you do something with us?’ I don’t play music, I like Beethoven and Bach but that’s all my experience. They asked for an idea, I said ‘If this is an idea of classical music and touching the lives of Latinos in Anaheim, let’s give sort of a history lesson.’ It was nebulous, but give a history lesson with classical music. Along the way they thought of the brilliant idea of bringing in Sara, to do a play scored by classical music. So now it’s coming together. And they asked about venues, and we thought of Pearson Park, which is beautiful but used to be segregated.”
Pearson Park, segregated?
“The park was segregated into the 40s and the pool into the 50s,” says Arellano. “I’m a native of Anaheim, and I know it’s not just a symbolic place to have a concert but a beautiful place to have a concert.”
As host and narrator, much of the tone will be set by Arellano. So what can listeners expect?
“My job is to tell the story about Anaheim and a little bit about me,” he says. “I’m not the centerpiece, but I am the narrator, and there are a lot of funny, poignant possibilities as narrator of the play; how my character, based on me, interacts with the main protagonists of the play. For me at least, the tone will hit everything a history should tell. It will sadden, inspire, anger, entertain, and teach. On my behalf, kudos to the symphony for challenging themselves in such a way. I hope they do more of this, and that the effort challenges other fine arts in the region to do likewise. SCR has done it, but lots of arts organizations like to play it safe. I hope it’s successful enough to show that if you take a risk the public will reward you.”
Guerrero, who is taking on the gargantuan task of pulling it all together, is putting on her playwriting hat after a long hiatus.
“I’m generally the director that works with playwrights,” she says. “I’m the one who sits in the room and workshops, creates the incubating space, does the workshopping. I’ve been a playwright in the past, so this is revisiting playwriting for myself. Because of the piece in particular, that means understanding the time frame, doing the research, and trying to find the threads and themes that connect the stories. Research plays a huge role in this process. Then I need to be receptive and vulnerable, to allow myself to connect to the voices. As a director, my role is to be there to support the writer, but to step into the shoes of the writer is to exercise muscles I haven’t used in a while. If you run and haven’t run for a while, the first few steps are ‘Can I do this?’ Then the adrenaline kicks in and you find yourself again, you find your voice.”
And while her writing voice has emerged again, it’s been a challenging process in other ways.
“It’s a bit of a rollercoaster,” she says. “The stories have come about, but historically, people of color haven’t been given the opportunity to watch their histories. Historically, they have got the short end of the stick. So reading these stories, especially with what’s going on politically now, there are so many parallels. My dad’s side of the family resided in Anaheim, and were part of the community that came from central Mexico and were field workers, so I’m kind of thinking about my grandmother’s stories. Growing up I heard them, but to really understand the Citrus War of 1936, historically one of the most traumatic strikes of our country—and one of the least documented—and to know that the powers-that-be oppressed these stories, including our local paper, putting that in the context of my family, it’s been an emotional roller-coaster. I have a deeper understanding of seeing through their lens just for a moment. I’m so fortunate to have been born in the time that I was.”
How does one capture the wide array of untold stories over the course of so many years? Short answer, you can’t.
“There’s a line in the play that Gustavo wrote,’ says Guerrero. “’This is not a perfect history, and by no means can we encapsulate everything. Some of the things, but not all of the things.’ My responsibility is to not make it feel like a history pamphlet, to make it actionable. And I hope this inspires future opportunities.”
Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.