Classically Trained: Bringing their best to Bulgaria

IRVINE — They've sold out two concerts in Europe. But that was probably the easiest part.

Now they've got to pack their suitcases and polish their instruments — not to mention print out those boarding passes to fly to the shows.

Still, sold-out performances on a foreign continent? Not bad for some of Southern California's finest and youngest classically trained.

The buzz and anticipation are high for the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra (PSYO), which leaves Sunday for its 10-day tour to Bulgaria, the home country of PSYO conductor Maxim Eshkenazy.

Newspapers in that southeastern European country have already previewed the Irvine-based ensemble's pending performances. Even more media — like radio and television — will broadcast the youth orchestra's music for the Bulgarian masses.

"It's a huge media blitz," Eshkenazy said Monday outside PSYO's rehearsal home, the Winifred Smith Hall on the UC Irvine campus.

The orchestra performs in the capital city of Sofia, then Plovdiv and Varna — the three largest Bulgarian cities. Eshkenazy predicted that the biggest concert might be the first in Sofia's Bulgaria Hall, a 1,100-seat venue that's home of the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra.

"But you never know which one is going to be biggest," he said. "You think one will be the pinnacle, but something different happens. We will see."

The program includes "Slava!" by Leonard Bernstein, Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," John Williams' "Imperial March" from the "Star Wars" films, Tchaikovsky's suite from "Swan Lake" and Bulgarian composer Petko Staynov's "Thracian Dances." Encores are also planned.

Choosing those pieces took consideration, Eshkenazy said.

He wanted the music to highlight various sections of his orchestra — like the strings in "Swan Lake," the brass in "Slava!" and woodwinds for "Thracian Dances" — and represent American and Bulgarian composers.

Eshkenazy hopes the tour for the PSYO, an educational ensemble formed in 1993 under the auspices of the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony, has a transformative and lasting effect.

"When you start repeating the same program over and over, there is something magical happening," he said. "The connection, the brotherhood, the teamwork, they improve dramatically, and it stays with that orchestra as a tradition for a long time after that."

Eshkenazy wants to emulate that level of success with this group, whose only "tour" beyond its Costa Mesa concert hall performances has been to Palm Springs.

That type of accomplishment is what happened to the Pacific Symphony when it did its first and, so far, only international tour in 2006 throughout Europe, added Elizabeth Stahr, board chairwoman of Pacific Symphony's three youth ensembles.

Stahr, a Corona del Mar resident of nearly 40 years and a longtime supporter of local youth endeavors, was a patron who traveled with the Pacific Symphony during its European tour. She remarked how that time helped the orchestra members get to know each other better, which helped the ensemble reach new artistic heights.

These days, though, she's been busy leading two years' worth of fundraising efforts for the PSYO's Bulgaria trip. It's so engrained in her mind that she can quickly rattle off the numbers of the 106-member traveling show: 73 PSYO kids, 16 patrons, 11 chaperones and six staff.

In addition, this being an educational ensemble and all, Stahr put together some history worksheets, quizzes and a how-to guide for international travel.

Peace Corps volunteers, professional Bulgarian musicians and politicians — including James Warlick, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria — are among the dignitaries scheduled to meet with the PSYO.

"I feel strongly that some of your best travel experiences are with personal contact, and this will spark these kids' imagination about travel and overseas study," Stahr said in an e-mail.

Because the PSYO and its followers will be abroad on the Fourth of July, they'll be bringing their American patriotic spirit with them. Stahr said an outdoor picnic and possibly some brass music, complete with fireworks, are planned.

Eshkenazy said he wants his musicians to experience his home country with an open mind.

I doubt that'll be a problem.

Based on my experiences touring as a young musician, I'll wager their young minds are so open that they won't be able to sleep a wink the night before their departure. Enthusiasm and anticipation won't allow for it.

Or as Eshkenazy succinctly put it, "They're buzzing with excitement."

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at

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