On a recent Friday autumn evening, Kenia Barragan of Fullerton brought her friends to Independence Park in Fullerton. They took blankets, snacks and a tasty red wine from Portland, and listened to a woodwind quintet perform Latin American and Spanish works for free out of a mobile truck as a breeze drifted in and the sun set on the horizon.

It was the latest performance by Pacific Symphony and its innovative “Symphony on the Go” community concert project, which started in July and concludes this Sunday and Wednesday in Orange and Santa Ana, respectively.

“We loved it,” said Barragan, 30. “I liked that (the flutist) came out every other song and gave us some background. We brought our own picnic. Overall, the experience was really nice, and it was actually a good turnout for classical music.”

Her friend, Jenelle Carranza, agreed.

“It was really dope,” said Carranza, a loan officer who lives in Corona but grew up in Fullerton. “Especially here at this known place. Everybody knows this park.”

Pacific Symphony’s Symphony on the Go has proven to be a popular draw among families and various communities in Orange County. The traveling stage on wheels — built out of a 40-foot truck — is equipped with lighting, amplification, slip-proof flooring, heating and air conditioning. The exterior is decorated with colorful images of Pacific Symphony musicians and music director Carl St.Clair, who’s celebrating his 30th anniversary with the orchestra this year.

The Symphony on the Go project was conceived in the depths of the pandemic, when indoor concerts were an impossibility, and the organization was pondering ways it could play outdoors and reach out to far reaches of the community. To date, Symphony on the Go has performed about 30 concerts from north to south Orange County at public parks, farmers’ markets, in parking lots and outside nonprofit organizations throughout the county.

“It’s been really exciting, and it’s been a really powerful platform to engage the community,” said John Forsyte, president of Pacific Symphony. “The response has been very warm. We’ve actually found great, after-concert interaction. There are lines of people who want to talk to the musicians. It tells us there’s a lot of need, a lot of desire to engage.”

The Symphony on the Go truck and program were made possible by a grant from Jerry and Terri Kohl. The Kohls are the co-founders of Brighton Collectibles, an accessories manufacturer and retailer with more than 200 retail stores in the U.S. and a significant online presence.

The couple are also active philanthropists, and have given donations to L.A. Opera and the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, among other groups. 

“We’d always dreamt of having something like this, and it was Jerry and Teri Kohl who pushed hard to do this,” Forsyte said. “They not only conceived of this creative way for Pacific Symphony to bring music to all corners of Orange County, but also donated the funds to make Symphony on the Go possible.”

Forsyte added that this program has been an important way to keep orchestra and staff members compensated throughout the pandemic. About 13 musicians have participated in the program, some of them the organization’s most senior and respected performers, like cellists Laszlo Mezo and Warren Hagerty, flutist Ben Smolen and violinist Dana Freeman.

The groups that have hit the road for Symphony on the Go include a string quartet, a brass quintet and a woodwind quintet. 

Breaking Down the Fourth Wall

Cindy Ellis, who has played flute and piccolo for Pacific Symphony since its second year of existence (approximately 1979-1980), led the woodwind quintet that performed in Fullerton on Oct. 8 and at Los Rios Park in San Juan Capistrano on Oct. 9.

Cindy Ellis, flutist with the Pacific Symphony. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

She said the outdoor concerts — which typically last an hour — have been much more informal than the indoor, concert hall experience.

“The formality is what might put people off,” said Ellis, whose husband Tony Ellis plays trumpet for the symphony. “But being less formal opens up the world. It breaks down that fourth wall. We get a lot of people coming up and talking to us after the program, asking us how we play our instruments.”

Ellis said performing outdoors — which the symphony is used to doing, with concerts at the Pacific Amphitheatre and other outdoor venues — is akin to “musical camping.”

“Sometimes you get bugs, or you get the wind, or the elements,” she said. “You learn to adapt.”

Ellis added that these “On the Go” concerts have been great outreach for the organization. “Everybody has been so positive about it, and just the whole idea that live music is back — it’s a real celebration. You get this feeling that an overwhelming sense of gratitude is alive today.”

A Grassroots Effort

Another element that makes these “On the Go” concerts intriguing is that the programs have been designed by the musicians themselves, not by a music director or by an outside entity, like a visiting conductor or orchestra.

“They curate the content themselves,” Forsyte said. “There’s a lot of creativity that has emerged from our musicians’ own programming.”

The Symphony on the Go truck sets up on the side of the road, near a park in Dana Point. Performances are held on a mobile stage. Between each piece, musicians talk to the audience about what they are performing. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

Case in point: Ellis thought about what her woodwind quintet would play. Knowing that October is Hispanic Heritage Month, she decided to do an all-Latin music program.

“I looked at various catalogs online — Brazilian, Argentine, Spanish music,” she said. “I found some things that were recognizable, and some things that were not recognizable.”

The program on Oct. 8 and 9 in Fullerton and San Juan Capistrano consisted of Georges Bizet’s Aragonaise and Habanera from “Carmen,” Zequinha de Abreu’s Tico Tico no Fubá, Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, Ángel Villoldo’s El Choclo, Heitor Villa Lobos’ Choros, Isaac Albéniz’s Mallorca Barcarola and Sevilla No. 3 from Suite Espagnole, and Pascual Marquina Narro’s España Cañi.

Piazzolla is Argentina’s most famous tango nuevo composer, and Villa-Lobos is Brazil’s most renowned composer.

“It does allow us as musicians to have a little bit more of an entrepreneurship role to create the music in the concert,” Ellis said. “That’s the biggest difference. It sure is fun to be able to put together something you wouldn’t have done had you not had this project.”

Positive Response, But Money Needed

By all accounts, audience members seem to enjoy the experience as well. 

“They were fantastic,” said Vivi Kim, an MBA student at Pepperdine University who lives in Fullerton. She brought family and friends, with picnic, to the Oct. 8 concert at Independence Park. “It was great. It was really awesome.”

Symphony on the Go performances are typically held in places with lots of open space, like parks and parking lots. Families bring their own chairs and blankets to watch the performances by Pacific Symphony musicians. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

Darcy Lewis, a Fullerton investment analyst, took her daughter and friend to the performance. “It’s nice to have something outside in a park on a cool night,” she said. “It was super nice and peaceful. It was short. But it was really nice, and the backdrop was nice too, while we were eating our El Pollo Loco.”

Pacific Symphony sponsored a poster contest to illustrate the project and get young community members involved. Korina Bao, an eighth grader at Rancho Santa Margarita Intermediate School, won the contest with an acrylic on canvas depicting a kaleidoscopic violin. The poster has been on display at “On the Go” concerts, and Bao won $250 for her winning effort.  

Korina Bao, an eighth grader at Rancho Santa Margarita Intermediate in the Saddleback Unified School District, won the poster contest for the Symphony on the Go season. She is pictured here with her winning poster and Pacific Symphony’s president and CEO, John Forsyte. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Eric Simonson

The next Symphony on the Go concert will be Sunday, Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. at Chapman University’s Aitken Arts Plaza, outside the Musco Center for the Arts in Orange. Because it’s on a private college campus, guests must RSVP for the concert through Chapman’s ticketing webpage. (Free parking can also be arranged on that site.)

And the final show of the year will be Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 5:30 p.m. at Thornton Park in Santa Ana. Attendees are encouraged to bring lawn chairs or blankets for the outdoor concerts.

Pacific Symphony President Forsyte said the organization plans to continue the program next year, but it will take a significant fundraising effort to support it.

“We will need to raise money to continue to do it for free,” he said. “At least we have the hardware. I think it’s a great corporate sponsorship opportunity. Obviously, there’s a real promotional benefit — at the end of the day, our big motivator is: Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear live music in beautiful settings for new audiences?

“It’s like being sprung free, after 14-15 months of being caged in this virtual world.”

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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