Led by Allen Robert Gross, Orchestra Santa Monica delivers a classical program rich with Mexican and Italian flourishes
By Michael Aushenker
The concept behind Sunday’s “North and South of the Border” program is simple: Orchestra Santa Monica director and conductor Allen Robert Gross intends to bring Angelenos “music that represents the cultural diversity of the L.A. area.”
Largely featuring the works of Mexican-born composers and performers who have been active in Mexico and the United States, “North and South” features guitarist Ricardo Escobar for Silvestre Revueltas’ “Ocho por radio”; Enrique González Medina, a Tijuana-born composer taught at Pasadena Conservatory of Music who recently moved back to Mexico City; the North American premiere of “Las primas del General Calles”; Arturo Márquez’s “Danzón No. 3”; and “Symphony No. 4,” by Mendelssohn, with the north-south borders alluding to those dividing the composer’s native Germany and the Italy influencing this piece.
“Slowly but surely, we are increasing our presence in the community,” Gross said of his 55-member orchestra, which just expanded its season from three to four shows.
Originating at Santa Monica High’s Barnum Hall two years ago and now squarely based at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, the nascent Orchestra Santa Monica has been performing with a mission to enrich the Westside with more classical music and its attendant culture.
Gross, who lives in Pasadena — home of the Pasadena Symphony and the Caltech-Occidental Symphony, which he also conducts — feels the Westside is “very arts oriented, but, at the same, time there are underserved communities in Santa Monica.”
But for an “underserved” community, Gross recognizes that Santa Monica does have its share of cultural institutions delivering rich classical fare, including The Broad Stage, the avant-garde Jacaranda orchestra (“They do things that nobody else in the area does”), and the Santa Monica Symphony. Gross led the Santa Monica Symphony for 20 years, leaving a couple years before its traditional venue, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was mothballed last summer.
What makes Orchestra Santa Monica stand out among these institutions is its educational outreach component, which strives to reach one of Gross’s underserved populations: teenagers from low-income backgrounds who may not be exposed to classical music.
Last week, Gross hosted two music workshops at Virginia Avenue Park that were led by Escobar, a Mexican-born, American-educated musician who, working with 20 kids per session, “got people improvising different rhythm patterns [leading into] Latin rhythms.”
Powered by two grants from Santa Monica’s cultural affairs division, the orchestra routinely dispatches a woodwind quartet to play in local schools and will also participate in Santa Monica’s Big Read literacy program in April.
“The future of what we love and do is dependent on new audiences — on reaching young people and bringing classical music to people who might not be exposed to it or intimidated by the proscenium barrier between the orchestra and the audience,” Gross said.
Gross said Mt. Olive provides good acoustics and an intimate atmosphere, but he’s still holding out hope the city will develop a first-class concert hall.
“The Civic had its limitations, which we dealt with pretty well, and it did accommodate a large audience. However, there is no acoustical shell.”
The diverse vernacular sounds of “North and South” should enlighten even Los Angeles’ most hardened culture-lovers.
Written for eight musicians, opener “Ocho por radio” dissects and reconstructs Mariachi over a span of just five minutes.
“It has an incredible sense of fun,” Gross said of the composition by Revueltas, a giant of 20th-century Mexican music whose amazing output of film scores and string quartet pieces was cut short by his alcohol-related death in 1940 at just 40 years old.
Orchestra Santa Monica’s remaining concerts this season include a March 30 program stuffed with Mozart, Bach and Handel and a May 31 spring concert finale delivering variations on Schumann and Weber.
“The intent is to provide to Santa Monica and the Westside a professional-level orchestra playing at a price point that is accessible to all,” Gross said.
Orchestra Santa Monica’s “North and South of the Border” begins at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, 1343 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. $20. Visit orchestrasantamonica.com.