Classically Trained: PSYO's Bulgaria tour to air in documentary

There was symbolism in their T-shirts.

Not long after the orange-clad kids from Orange County's top-notch youth orchestra exited the plane in Bulgaria, their conductor was met by an entourage. Maxim Eshkenazy had arrived in his home country, this time bringing with him some youthful dozens plucked from within his adopted country's musician ranks.

The Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra's (PSYO) three-city tour in Bulgaria was a frenzy of activity. The times between June 26 to July 5 included press interviews (10 in four days), rehearsals, live TV coverage, intracountry travel and history tours.

And there was probably some sleeping and eating mixed in there (for good nonmusical measure).

Many of those exciting times for the orchestra's 73 touring musicians (accompanied by six staffers, 11 chaperons and 14 music-loving supporters) are soon to be broadcast on PBS SoCal in a documentary titled "Bulgarian Rhapsody: Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra in Bulgaria."

It first airs at 7 p.m. Sunday, with a repeat showing at 7:30 p.m. On Nov. 21, it's scheduled to air at 10:30 p.m., then again at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 23.

Produced by UC Irvine alumna Maria Hall-Brown, the documentary is being billed as revealing "the joyous response by Bulgarian audiences to inspired performances by this young group of musicians as well as the intense operational challenges of touring."

Hall-Brown is no stranger to the Pacific Symphony, the professional parent of the PSYO. She accompanied the Costa Mesa-based orchestra in its 2006 nine-city tour throughout Europe and produced a documentary for PBS SoCal (then known as KOCE) about the occasion, titled "Pacific Symphony: Notes from Europe."

O.C. audiences likely know her best from her work on PBS SoCal's "Real Orange" and "Bookmark with Maria Hall-Brown."

Bringing those young musicians to a foreign country was a two-year project for Elizabeth Stahr, a Corona del Mar resident and longtime supporter of youth activities. She also serves as the board chairwoman of the Pacific Symphony's three youth ensembles.

Her hours spent planning the trip, organizing fundraising and making how-to international travel guides did not go unnoticed.

During the tour, the ensemble and Eshkenazy surprised Stahr with a violin. It came from Eshkenazy's family — whose lineage is filled with musicians — and was signed by everyone. Stahr keeps the antique instrument on her home's antique piano.

Even though it had been months since the trip, she still sounded excited about all the things that went well — namely the enthusiastic audience response to the PSYO's performances, being on Bulgarian live television and providing the kids an educational experience.

"They felt like they got an inside track of life in Bulgaria," Stahr said. "I'm pleased about that. It was not like any ordinary tour. It was a more personal impact that they got. I'm always interested in educating kids."

She also passed along some inspiring words from a clarinetist on the tour, John Choi. The 18-year-old from Irvine is now in his first year at Harvard.

"I will never forget the moment on our summer tour when my clarinet solo was met with standing ovation from the Bulgarian audience," Choi said. "That brief spark of connection, of a universal understanding and appreciation of music that transcends all cultural differences — this is what I live for."

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

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