Resplendent in white tie and tails, John Koshak cuts a fine figure at the podium of the Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra.
But don't be misled by that gentrified look, because in his 27 years as the group's conductor and musical director, Koshak has labored like a field hand, helping thousands of young people cultivate their musical gifts and, through them, their futures.
On Saturday, audiences can see the fruits of Koshak's work--and that of the 85 high school and college-age musicians he leads--in a concert at Chapman University's Memorial Hall, part of the group's three-concert series for the public. (They also perform eight concerts a year for county fifth-graders at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.)
The 75-minute program will feature Suite No. 2 of L'Arlesienne, by Bizet, Sibelius' Finlandia and Schubert's Eighth Symphony, "The Unfinished." Also, 14-year-old twins Geoffrey and Gregory Hershberger will be the soloists in Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Cellos.
Over the years, Koshak has seen about a quarter of his former students establish themselves with such ensembles as the Pacific Symphony and the L.A. Philharmonic. Koshak, a graduate of the conducting program at the Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria who has conducted professional orchestras in Australia, Europe, China and the U.S., said he's gratified when former students succeed musically but feels the real rewards are broader in scope.
"The biggest thing that orchestra training gives these kids is . . . positive self-discipline," Koshak explained by phone from his office at Chapman, where he serves as director of orchestras and instrumental music.
By committing to weekly rehearsals, periodic workshops and performances, students are rewarded with lessons in responsibility and cooperation that "affect pretty much everything they do, whether they become professional musicians or not," he said.
"You have to be prepared for what you're going to do, you have to be there on time, you have to be mentally and physically involved. All of that transfers to how you do in later life."
To qualify for orchestra membership, all students, including current members, must audition each September before a panel of professional musicians and OCYSO staff. They can enter as early as their freshman year in high school; most move on by their sophomore year in college, Koshak said. Those selected agree not only to participate fully in OCYSO's training and performances, but also to maintain an active role in their school's orchestra or band program.
Students pay no tuition; their families are encouraged (but not required) to contribute to the orchestra's Friends fund-raising organization. Additional support comes from Chapman; Las Campanas, a countywide arts support group; and the Orange County Department of Education, Koshak said.
It was through the department of education that Koshak coordinated the concert series at OCPAC. This year, an estimated 24,000 students will be reached.
The group also involves school-age children through its Orange County Junior Orchestra. That ensemble is open to students in fifth through seventh grades, rehearses weekly, and performs under conductor Robert Frelly at venues including Chapman and Disneyland.
In 1996, to commemorate Koshak's 25th year leading the orchestra--he came on board a year after group was formed in 1970--OCYSO released a CD, recorded live at Chapman, with Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Tchaikovsky's "Romeo & Juliet (Fantasy Overture)," Alan Hovhaness' "And God Created Great Whales" and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World").
Tours have taken members to the United Nations and to Carnegie Hall. Koshak, however, mentioned those achievements only in passing, while going on at length about what he considers a more important audience for his life's work.
"When Proposition 13 came in, the first thing to go was the school music program," he said. "We particularly saw this in less affluent areas.
"We are seeing an increase now, with some music programs coming back in and thriving, [but] there are still so many students who have no music training," he said. "They're just not introduced to music or concert-going nearly the way they were 20 years ago."
An OCYSO concert "may be the first time a kid hears orchestral music," he continued. "I'm hopeful that once they hear this, they'll say 'I want this in my life.' Maybe they'll carry that further and go to an art museum, or see a play or read fine books. I hope we can help make that happen."
The Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra performs Saturday in the Chapman University Memorial Hall, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. 8 p.m. $4-$6; children under 12 free. (714) 997-6914.