A Birthday Tune for the Idyllwild Arts Foundation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Students may graduate from the Idyllwild Arts Academy, they may complete summer courses at the Idyllwild Arts Foundation, but they never really leave the mountain arts haven--in spirit, at least.

"I found the quality of the arts education here to be stronger than my public schools and colleges, so I kept coming back to grow from it," said William M. Lowman. Not only did Lowman spend 10 years there in the '60s and '70s, progressing from student to dean of students, but he also returned in 1985 to run the then-new academy, a boarding school for the arts, where he's now executive director and headmaster.

And just to show that his roots as a singer are intact, he'll be part of an alumni choir that will join the Idyllwild Arts Academy International Chamber Orchestra and current students and faculty in a free performance tonight of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Jung-Ho Pak, music director of the orchestra and also the conductor of the Disney Young Persons Symphony, will conduct.

The concert, at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Idyllwild Arts Foundation, created in 1946 as a gathering place for people from of all ages to come together to experience the arts over the summer. Over the years, about 60,000 students, from conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas and singer Paula Abdul to actresses Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, have gone through its arts programs.

Lowman first attended Idyllwild as a high school choral student from Las Vegas, attending the summer program on a scholarship.

"I get joked about it all the time," said Lowman, who started in 1965 at what was then called the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (ISOMATA). "People here with me say that finally one of the ISOMATA brats has taken over."

Following his 10 years at Idyllwild--90 miles east of Orange County in the San Jacinto Mountains--he left to found the Nevada School of the Arts, an after-school arts program.

Describing himself as administratively minded, he said he returned because "nonprofits are fragile, and I wanted to make sure this one would survive and succeed in the world." The academy is one of three boarding schools for the arts in the nation and draws high school students from all over the globe.

One of Lowman's continuing goals is to increase the amount of money the Idyllwild programs can offer students in the way of financial aid and scholarships, given that it costs $23,000 a year to attend the academy, or $150 to $400 for the summer programs. So tonight's concert also kicks off the Campaign for Idyllwild Arts, which has a goal of raising $20 million over five years.

"We feel like we're a beacon and a support for all those who value the arts in our post-Prop. 13 world," Lowman said. "Our students go out into the world and make really beautiful artistic expressions and become spokespersons for the arts, letting people know the arts make a huge positive difference in people's lives and to the life of society."

One of those is tenor Beau Palmer, who will sing in the San Diego Opera production of Bizet's "Carmen," opening tonight.

Palmer lamented that his "Carmen" commitment will prevent him from singing in the anniversary concert. But, he added, "you have to eat."

Palmer, 33, who grew up in Costa Mesa and attended Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, speaks enthusiastically about Idyllwild.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful place," he said by phone from San Diego. "[It was] very supportive. Overall I remember the people, their kindness, enthusiasm, love of art and human beings. Some of the friends I made there I'm confident will be lifelong friends."

Palmer went through the summer programs from age 13 to 18, studying voice, playing bass trombone and participating in the drama program.

"I think that experience has shaped me as much as anything else I've ever done," he said.

"When you're a [young] performer, and especially if you're at a school that isn't geared to that, you can be left out to sea, but to be with people who love what you're doing and what they're doing. . . . I would never have the love of dance and things like ceramics that I do now.

"I love that place," he said. "I even had my first kiss up there."

* The Idyllwild Arts Academy International Chamber Orchestra and Idyllwild Arts Foundation 50th Anniversary Choir perform tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. 8:30 p.m. Free. (800) 300-4345.

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