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Stockton Symphony Engages City With New Music

March 13, 2012

Avner DormanLike many small cities, Stockton has the requisite Main Street, a storied past, and a present filled with financial and other challenges. This city of 292,000, which boasts the largest inland port in California, is teetering on bankruptcy. It also owns the dubious distinction of having the third largest foreclosure rate in the nation, and is dealing with a vexing gang problem.

It is also home to an intensely proactive regional orchestra: the Stockton Symphony. The orchestra, the third oldest in the state, is celebrating its 85th year. And to mark that milestone, its long-time music director, Peter Jaffe, who is keen on commissioning new works, tapped Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman to write a work for it. The result is a 30-minute work called Uzu and Muzu. But what was spawned was more than just music.

The work is a musical adaptation of a children’s book of the same name by Israeli author Ephraim Sidon. It tells the story of two close brothers who quarrel over a trivial matter. The disagreement spurs the building of a wall down the middle of their home. It takes four generations for the fractured family to reconcile, at which point they realize that the conflict was utterly pointless.

The work, funded by a Music Alive Foundation residency, will be performed Friday and Sunday at the orchestra’s home base at Atherton Auditorium on the campus of Delta College. It will share a concert program with another work that plumbs conflict — but with a different kind of resolution: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

Universal Themes

Peter Jaffe Stockton SymphonyWhen Jaffe approached Dorman with the commission idea more than a year ago, Dorman instantly thought of Sidon’s story. “I was introduced to this story at 13 when I was babysitting for a neighbor,” said Dorman. “It made a big impression on me ... and the more I work on it with the people of Stockton, the more I realize that this story is universal. The music seems to speak to them, and it’s giving them a pathway into the topic of conflict resolution.”

Dorman set about structuring his Uzu and Muzu as a musical morality tale about conflict, making sure he kept alive parallel significances to Stockton. Dorman, who grew up outside Tel Aviv, seems a fitting composer to write such a work. He got his introduction to conflict as a youth as a witness to the Israeli-Palestinian divide. “Every Israeli is very much affected day-to-day by the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue is part of it,” he said. “It still affects my life today. My earliest memories have to do with terrorist attacks — like bombs.”

He also experienced a divide most Westerners never hear about: that between Jews from European countries and Jews from North Africa. “Many Jewish immigrants from North Africa and other Arabic countries in the 1950s felt that they were mistreated by the government, which was predominantly made up of ex-European Jews,” he said.

What was spawned was more than just music.

Dorman, who spent several years living in Los Angeles, is no stranger to gangs’ becoming an issue in a community. He said that experience helped him connect with Stockton's problem: roughly 3,000 gang members spread over 57 groups, according to a recent story in the Stockton Record. “It’s very easy to get into the mode of demonizing the other person, and making up stories about someone else,” said Dorman.

Staying in Touch

The idea of commissioning a new work that is then brought deeply into the community is not a new pursuit for Jaffe, who is now in his 17th year as music director at Stockton. “We have commissioned at least one work, and sometimes two, every season since I’ve been here,” said Jaffe.

In 2007 the orchestra took on a commission of similar scope to Uzu and Muzu. Titled Music Is the Power, the commission was supported by the Music Alive Foundation. Key to the work, written by Christopher Brubeck (son of the renowned jazz pianist Dave Brubeck) was combining music, text, and imagery.

“This is a really challenging time for Stockton, so to deny that reality would have been like sticking your head in the sand.” – Peter Jaffe

The text was designed as an exploration about music and written by students from Stockton and surrounding San Joaquin County communities.

“There were a thousand text entries submitted!” said Jaffe. “These were whittled down to the best entries that Brubeck’s married to his music … in this way, students were not just witnesses but co-creators.”

The Music Is The Power project helped lay the foundation to Uzu and Muzu, said Jaffe. “Knowing that we can work with this kind of engagement activity helped us write the Uzu and Muzu proposal.”

To ensure such commissions in the future, the orchestra launched a “Commissioning Club” last fall. In that effort, prospective donors were invited to the home of a board member, where Dorman offered a preview of the new work, as well as some of his personal insights as a composer. Soon after that event, the orchestra received a generous gift to help with future commissions.

A Call to Respond

Unlike prior commissions, Uzu and Muzu brings with it a sense of gravitas and urgency, given the times, Jaffe said. “This is a really challenging time for Stockton, so to deny that reality would have been like sticking your head in the sand,” he said.

“It’s a piece that reminds me how art can have an impact on society.” – Benjamin Saffold

Indeed, the Uzu and Muzu commission has taken the orchestra deeply into community issues. In a way, it has morphed the orchestra from performer to convener. Last week the orchestra ran a forum on conflict resolution at the New Bethel Baptist Church Baptist church (one of the city’s largest African-American congregations) and at the Mexican Heritage Center.

Jaffe and Dorman explained the work and handed out a copy of Sidon’s book before the discussion began. The forum included members of the community, as well as orchestra subscribers.

“This forum came at a most opportune time for Stockton,” said Benjamin Saffold, a third-generation Stocktonian who facilitated the forum as a member of the city’s Gospel Center Rescue Mission. “It’s a piece that reminds me how art can have an impact on society. The themes in the piece are kind of parallel with what Stockton is going through right now,” he said.

That effort dovetailed with the orchestra’s offering Uzu and Muzu to 6,500 school children last week after composer Dorman and Jaffe made site visits last year to spark interest in the piece.

“This is an unusually dramatic example of how an orchestra sees itself as part of strengthening, helping, supporting, and engaging a community,” said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of Symphony Orchestras. Rosen was emboldened by the fact that the orchestra decided to go the way of convening forums. “They are really functioning like a catalyst in the community,” he said. “This goes way beyond the realm of what they’re doing musically.”

The orchestra’s intense and constant efforts around Uzu and Muzu serve as an elegant model from which other orchestras can learn, said Scott Winship, director of the grant-making programs for the American Music Center, which oversees Dorman’s Music Alive residency. “With projects like these sometimes there is a ‘one-off’ sort of thing. This is part of a longer commitment.”

“This is an unusually dramatic example of how an orchestra sees itself as part of strengthening, helping, supporting, and engaging a community.” – Jesse Rosen

The orchestra, which operates on a $1.5 million budget and presents five classical and five pops concerts each season, has always been keen on commissioning new works, and marrying those to proactive outreach goals.

“When the orchestra decided to take on the commission, it already had big plans in mind,” said Jane Kenworthy, executive director with the Stockton Symphony. “We didn’t just call up Avner and ask him to write a piece for us. We had a specific idea that we wanted a piece that would really speak to the civic issues here in Stockton.”

Tapping Student Power

The list of community engagement events surrounding Uzu and Muzu is a long one. All are tailored to address challenges the city faces. One issue is the literacy rate at some Stockton schools, where more than half the students have listed English as their second language. Such factors have led Stockton to become the city with the lowest literacy rate of 69 U.S. cities with populations of 250,000 or more.

To date, the orchestra has also partnered with the city’s newspaper, the Stockton Record, on a writing competition whose subject matter is linked to Dorman’s piece, with student writing to be published by the paper. In select schools, students will write poems that address themes of conflict. A poetry slam event is scheduled around conflict issues, and Dorman will visit libraries in Stockton to read the text of Uzu and Muzu.

Dorman’s Music Alive residency with the Stockton Symphony began last November. Since then he has interacted with Stockton youth several times, even as he was in the throes of writing the piece. In visits to schools last November, he brought the music he was writing as MIDI files. He played sections to students, who were asked what they thought of the played passages. Students also interacted with the work. One school he visited is Ansel Adams Elementary, a school that reflects the dynamic mix of the city’s population. Only 8 percent of the 916 students at the school have identified themselves as white.

Dorman’s visit had a profound effect on some of the students at the school, said Agnes Litfin, a music teacher there. “I have students that are actually working on compositions of lyrics or music in class right now ... and they were inspired by Dorman’s visit,” she said.

The learning process ran both ways, said Dorman. Interacting with the students changed the course of the piece. In one section Dorman portrays the snoring of the two brothers with percussion instruments that rattle, like the guiro. “I played what I had written for kids and asked them how the orchestra would make the snoring sounds. This was something that really excited them,” he said.

Dorman made the snoring sound and asked students to do the same. The experience inspired him to have the narrator ask the audience to snore along with the music in performances. “Up until the classroom visits it did not occur to me to do that!” he said.

Uzu and Muzu is not only designed as a work engaging the community. Jaffe feels it adds a new work to the repertoire for young audiences, saying it’s an adult concert and also a youth concert, like Peter and the Wolf.

“I’ll venture to say that this piece will stick around and maybe become part of the repertoire. It shows off all the instruments well ... and is written for not that large an orchestra, so it’s a work most orchestras will be willing to take on.”

Edward Ortiz is an arts and science writer who has written for The Sacramento Bee, The Boston Globe, and The Providence Journal. He is also a contributor to Symphony Magazine and