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Students Inspired by Special "Master Class" With World-Class Musicians at the Lesher Center

“If you play music, you’re doing something beautiful and worthwhile in the world." That was one message about music, art, life and humanity, delivered by top musicians Eliot Fisk and Richard Stoltzman to young musicians Monday.

During a special concert for middle school students at the on Monday, world-renowned clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and classical guitar player Eliot Fisk performed a sampler of classical, jazz, modern and folk music.

While displaying exquisite technique, the two virtuosos also took questions and offered valuable lessons about the craft of performance, the thrill of artistic expression and music’s essential role in society and in a happy, meaningful life.

“How many of you play music because you feel something deep inside that you want to express?” Fisk asked the excited audience of nearly 300 students, grades 6 through 8 from Rancho Medanos and Hillview junior high schools in Pittsburg.

Many hands shot up.

A few minutes later, Stoltzman explained the clarinet is his “voice.” When he plays, he likes to think of his clarinet singing for him. “Our voice is the soul of us,” he said. “It’s the sound our soul makes.”

He let his “voice” sing for him with several stirring selections: the opening clarinet glissando of George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" and a duet with Fisk of the folk song “The Ballad of Barbara Allen.” This plaintive melody tells a story of unrequited love, something Stoltzman revealed he experienced at age 14.

“I wouldn’t even talk to the girl,” he said. 

This description of Stoltzman and Fisk's presentation to students from these under-served East Contra Costa County schools comes from a press release from the Diablo Regional Arts Association.

The students came to the Lesher Center as guests of DRAA, the nonprofit partner of the Lesher Center. Stoltzman and Fisk had performed Sunday at the Lesher Center as part of the Chamber Music San Francisco’s 2012 subscription series and at DRAA’s Annual Business Alliance for the Arts Luncheon on Monday.

Stoltzman and Fisk have played to audiences around the world, taught at top music schools in the United States and Europe and spoken widely on music and culture to audiences, young and old, in a variety of venues, including on radio and TV. Fisk has even gone to senior centers, logging camps and prisons to share his enthusiasm for music and the guitar.

As Executive Director Peggy White said: “These are internationally renowned musicians. They are the best in the world, and these kids are going to see them perform in the intimate Margaret Lesher Theater. It is our hope that they will be wowed and inspired.”

Students were indeed wowed and inspired, according to the press release.

“This is the experience of a lifetime,” said Mackenzie Knox, an alto saxophone player from Rancho Medanos Junior High, as she went into the theater. Coming out after hearing Stoltzman and Fisk play and speak, her eyes were wide as she pronounced, “That was amazing.” 

Hillview Junior High School teacher Diane Klaczynski directs her school’s beginning, concert and wind ensemble bands. She was “super excited” about DRAA’s invitation to bring her 135 students to the concert. She said many of her students, including recorder students, have never been to a concert before. 

Through its Arts Access School-Time Program, DRAA provides free tickets and transportation to more than 5,000 K-12 Contra Costa County students each year.

DRAA covers the costs for students to see professional, high-quality music, theater, dance and visual arts programs at the Lesher Center. Arts Access also provides California standards-based study guides to teachers so they can create lessons, specific to each performance, for in-class instruction before and after coming to the Lesher Center.

For schools to participate in Arts Access, at least 60 percent of their student body must qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Klaczynski said 80 percent of the students at Hillview qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches and many parents could never afford to take their children to such an event.

Stoltzman and Fisk were models of grace and good humor as they performed for students, answered their questions and shared their own artistic journeys.

Fisk told the students he began playing because he had a younger brother with Down syndrome and his father thought it would be a good idea for the family to play music and sing with him. 

Stoltzman said he wanted to play music as soon as he heard the Rhapsody in Blue glissando. When he expressed his desire to play that piece to a music teacher his grandmother took him to, the teacher said “not yet.” First, he had to learn scales, notes and how to breathe in a completely new and controlled way.  “I started to play music, and to play notes and more notes and more notes. I started dreaming about what the notes meant to me,” he said.

Each tried other instruments but settled on one, in part because each realized that to play music really well, he had to devote himself to one instrument. Even after playing clarinet more than 60 years, Stoltzman said he still practices four hours a day.

The duo also performed a work by Bartok and selections that highlighted American music roots in folk and jazz. A lovely moment came when the two performed a duet of “Amazing Grace.” A student had asked Stoltzman to name the most famous song he had every played: “Would you like to hear it?” he asked. “Yeah, we want to hear it!” students responded.

One girl asked them to play “the Titanic song.” Instead of playing “My Heart Will Go On,” Stoltzman delighted the students with a movement from “New York Counterpoint.” Stoltzman may be best known for this unusual rhythmic work that was scored for him to play live against 10 recordings of himself.

“I’ve never heard anything like that before,” Hillview sixth grader Nick Orlando said.

When asked what kind of music they like, both said all styles. Stoltzman said he still loves music that was written 200 or 300 years ago. “That’s the great thing about music,” he said. “We’re all only on this planet a little while, but music will keep going and going.’

Fisk added: “If you play music, you’re doing something beautiful and worthwhile in the world.” The reason he and Stoltzman like to share their love of music, and the reason people become teachers, is because that’s what people do. “That’s why we’re here as a human race. We pass things on. That’s what your parents do. That’s what your teachers do. And that’s what you’ll be doing with your own kids.”

Daniel Levenstein, director of Chamber Music San Francisco, helped make this concert possible, DRAA’s Executive Director Peggy White said. “DRAA is also grateful to individual donors and the foundations and businesses that have stepped forward to make this program possible,” she said.

These donors include Target, JP Morgan Chase, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Hewlett Foundation, the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, the Thomas J. Long Foundation, Wells Fargo, Union Bank, Vodafone America’s Foundation and First Republic Bank. 

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