YOSA rehearses with Branford Marsalis. Photo by Page Graham.

Jazz legend Branford Marsalis spent a few days last week in San Antonio working with the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio (YOSA), a resident company of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

This group boasts more than 450 musicians arranged into eight orchestras. They have weekly rehearsals and perform 10 concerts annually. Comprised of the most experienced young musicians, the YOSA Philharmonic plays a professional repertoire in premier venues here and abroad. They collaborate regularly with internationally renowned soloists and composers. For this event, the YOSA Philharmonic performed with Marsalis in a one-night-only concert at the Tobin on Sunday evening.

Some YOSA musicians study with professional musicians with the San Antonio Symphony and go on to  earn academic scholarships to leading universities and music schools that represent life-changing opportunities. Virtually all of YOSA’s student musicians go on to attend and graduate from college.

During a break in the pre-show rehearsal, I had an opportunity to speak briefly with Marsalis. The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, renowned Grammy Award-winning saxophonist and Tony Award nominee is one of the most revered instrumentalists of his time. Marsalis was brought to San Antonio with a grant from The Russell Hill Rogers Fund for the Arts.

Tami Kegley: What do you think about these kids here in San Antonio?

Branford Marsalis. Photo by Page Graham.
Branford Marsalis. Photo by Page Graham.

Branford Marsalis: They are great. I didn’t get a lot of time to talk to them individually, but they are…serious. They are very earnest, and that is not something that you usually attribute to teenagers these days.

TK: I hear there was a workshop at Trinity University. How did it go?

BM: It was great. It was a Q&A and they asked a lot of questions and I tried to give them very honest answers.

TK: How often do you work with youth?

BM: No, never – not with symphonies, never. It’s usually jazz bands, but this has been excellent. Troy (Peters) and John (Zarco) are great conductors and it has been a fun process.

TK: How do you relate how you came up as a kid with what these guys are doing? You came up in a legendary family of musicians.

BM: Well, no, it wasn’t legendary back then. That wasn’t in our thought process. Wynton and I played in youth orchestra and the city-wide bands and the all-state bands. And then we had the extra thing because we got to play traditional New Orleans music. So, we got to play with the brass bands and sing songs, like “Two-Way-Pock-A-Way” and all these songs. I think they give you an edge (laughs). It was great to be 14 years old, and being able to play in a bar and having all the bartenders say, “I know your father, and if you think about taking a drink, you know I’m gonna beat ya and he’s gonna beat ya.” But the fact that we could actually play.

TK: So you played professionally as a kid?

BM: Well, I made 75 cents…

TK: But the experience of working as a professional…

BM: The experience of trying to figure out how to communicate to an audience. It is something that is…invaluable. It’s invaluable. I gotta go to work.

The view from the string section. Photo by Page Graham.
The view from the strings section. Photo by Page Graham.

“I gotta go to work,” Marsalis said, going back to rehearsal.

And that is the truth in a nutshell. One isn’t born a great artist. It takes years of hard work and a multitude of experiences that eventually mold you into that “entity.” And even then, it’s lightning in a bottle. There are no guarantees that all that hard work and practice will pay off with fame and fortune. Yet it always does pay off in some way. Indeed, the greatest value is in the work ethic of practice and performance. Exposing a young person to musical training has long been valued as an essential part of a good, well-rounded education.

The field of music neuroscience is still relatively new, but recent studies show that exposure to a musical education not only creates a disciplined mind. It also helps the mind to process information in ways that science is just beginning to understand. An example? Catherine Raine Esparza, an eighth grader and YOSA double bass player, is our regional spelling champion and on her way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

One of the greatest accomplishments of YOSA, according to Executive Director Brandon Henson, is the graduation rate of YOSA alumni.

“For seven, going on eight, seasons now, we have had a 100% graduation record,” he said. This is an important distinction for this organization with a reach of more than 1,800 students from 158 schools in 21 school districts.

YOSA musicians are ethnically and socio-economically diverse, these are not just privileged kids from the suburbs. YOSA reaches into every inner city school district. The student musicians are 53% Hispanic, 33% Caucasian, 3% African-American and 8% Asian-American. A third of YOSA musicians receive tuition assistance and more than 65% receive free programs through community partnerships. Many of these students go on to be the first in their families to attend college. They win scholarships that allow them not only to study music, but whatever and wherever their brilliant young minds take them.

YOSA rehearses with Branford Marsalis. Photo by Page Graham.
YOSA rehearses with Branford Marsalis. Photo by Page Graham.

This is an organization doing all the right things in our community – but keep in mind that these people are also very good at their musical crafts. Under the baton of Music Director Troy Peters, the audience on Sunday evening was treated to a world-class performance. Opening with “Supermaximum” composed by Kenji Bunch, the full orchestra launched into this contemporary masterwork inspired by the tradition of “chain gang” songs created in the prison camps of the Depression-era South.

Marsalis then joined the orchestra on alto saxophone for Alexander Glazunov’s “Concerto in E-flat major for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra, Opus 109.” The orchestra musicians were a perfect foil for Marsalis’ silky-sweet style. As they relaxed into performance, it was gratifying to see this group of young people perform with such richness and precision with such a legendary talent.

Next up, Dr. John Zarco, YOSA Symphonic Winds conductor (also associate director of bands at UTSA) continued the program, conducting Erwin Schulhoff’s “Jazz Concerto (Hot Sonata) for Alto Saxophone and Chamber Ensemble.” The majority of the orchestra left the stage at this point, the excellent woodwinds section taking care of the heavy lifting for this piece. Again, they backed Marsalis deftly, becoming one with the soloist, never overwhelming the master.

This is a credit to their instruction. Earlier, during rehearsal, Maestro Peters had the punch line for the afternoon when he admonished the young musicians to back off a bit, to cool it. He pointed out that they weren’t soloists.

“We can only afford one soloist,” he said, drawing laughter from those of us in attendance and Marsalis, too.

We were treated to a surprise during Marsalis’ encore at the end of the first segment. Marsalis wanted to do an encore, but not alone. He convinced local legend George Prado to bring his bass onstage to play with him. It was a lovely moment. Prado is much loved and admired here in San Antonio. It was a gracious and heartfelt gesture on the part of Branford. And that was it. Marsalis was off to the airport, a man on the move.

George Prado and Branford Marsalis jam for the encore. Photo by Page Graham.
George Prado and Branford Marsalis jam for the encore. Photo by Page Graham.

After the intermission, those who stayed behind enjoyed a very solid classical program with Richard Strauss’ “Serenade in E-flat major, Opus 7,” conducted by Zarco. It was pointed out that this piece for 13 wind instruments was composed by Strauss when he was just 17. This was YOSA’s contribution to the recent Strauss Festival. A very apropos choice, teenagers playing music by a teenager.

Finally, the full orchestra returned to the stage with Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations, Opus 36” which was made particularly enjoyable by a video projection giving the audience the lowdown on the friends of Elgar, depicted by the 14 variations. This presentation made the experience all the richer. We learned that the composer would relax in the evening by improvising on his piano, amusing his wife with musical portraits of their various friends. This parlor game grew into the orchestral masterpiece that we enjoy today. All in all, this was an excellent evening of music.

There will be one more opportunity to see the YOSA Philharmonic in action this season. They will perform “Carmina Burana” featuring soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine, tenor Ryland Angel, and baritone Zachary Gordin, on Sunday, May 17, 7 p.m. at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. There are no tickets that cost more than $20, and students see the performance for just $5. For more information call 210-737-0097, or visit www.yosa.org.

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Tami Kegley

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...