Bulgaria. It's not a country that comes up often within the confines of a SoCal kid's usual conversation.
But for 78 musicians of the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra, it's on the tip of their tongues as anticipation builds for a tour of that southeastern European country under the baton of one its own musical superstars, Bulgarian native Maxim Eshkenazy.
The orchestra kids have been fundraising for months, taking their skills on the Orange County roads in mini-fundraising concerts and writing letters to prospective donors. I've been to one of those shows in Newport Beach and was impressed with some of the youngsters' stage poise and abilities, though I hadn't yet heard them all together onstage.
I finally got my chance on Sunday in Costa Mesa. The PSYO's concert in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall featured Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," an arrangement of his "Porgy and Bess" opera and Vaughan Williams' "Five Mystical Songs." A host of members from the Pacific Chorale Honor Choir sang for portions of "Five Mystical Songs."
These young musicians were amazing. There were a few of those sublime moments where it was easy to forget this orchestra wasn't chock-full of seasoned professionals. Thus, judging by how well they play, I think they will be well-received in Europe as the young American musical ambassadors that they are.
Before the show started, I overheard a few of the youngsters in their onstage warm-ups playing some fun snippets of what was to come, like a trombone's sliding note or a solo clarinet crescendo from "Rhapsody in Blue." Then memories of my own musical youth flooded back to me.
I remembered what it felt like to be them on the day of the concert, the day when family and friends finally get to hear the end result of all those rehearsals and practice times. Up to that point, they'd only heard their musician's individual fragments in solo practice, but not how those fragments fit into the grand whole.
The realization of all that fitting together — and in a setting as awe-inspiring as Orange County's premier concert hall — is a great moment for all.
I remembered how fun it is to be on a great stage with a great group. When I was a sophomore in high school, I once played in the Segerstrom Hall. That afternoon playing great wind band literature in a grand acoustic setting was one of my best high-school memories.
How memorable it must be, then, for these kids to regularly play in the even better hall next door.
I also recalled the exhilaration of touring with fellow musicians. As a young French horn player I got to play in Hawaii, Canada, Washington, D.C., and much of the western U.S. — all were highlights for me growing up.
But to play and tour an exotic foreign country?
Judging by the response of one of the PSYO members, that exhilaration is out the window.
Jonah Yonker is a percussionist with the orchestra, and if it weren't for one generous individual, the young man from Oceanside wouldn't be going to Europe with his colleagues.
Delores Grunigen — a Newport Beach resident, longtime Pacific Symphony listener and newly recruited supporter of its youth ensembles — is sponsoring trips for Jonah and Sarah Chung, a PSYO co-concertmistress.
In a thank-you letter to Grunigen, Jonah's mother, Pam, wrote that while she can drive her son "to lessons, encourage him to practice and cheer and every performance" she could never have afforded to send him abroad.
In the same letter, Jonah added: "I am thrilled to be going to Bulgaria because performance is my passion. To entertain an audience of complete strangers for an hour or two is an indescribable feeling, and one that never diminishes or grows stale."
I met Grunigen after Sunday's concert. She was understandably very excited for the orchestra kids, but what stuck out to me was when she recalled first meeting Jonah — and seeing his elation first-hand.
"When Jonah found out I was a donor, he saw me walk in ... he ran over to me and hugged me. The kids are so very, very grateful, and it truly comes from the heart. There's no question about it."