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Jewish Journal

How does the Sinai Akiba orchestra get to Carnegie Hall?

by Alina Tugend

July 5, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Elizabeth Heyman had about 15 friends and relatives come watch her inaugural musical performance with her West Los Angeles school, Sinai Akiba Academy, at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Although Heyman, 12, like other members of the orchestra, has played at other venues, including Disneyland, this was something special.

"When I first walked into the building, the first thought that hit me was that it wasn't as good as the movies," said Elizabeth, who plays percussion. "But when I walked into the hall, it was amazing."

About 60 members of the orchestra at the conservative Jewish day school, ranging from second grade through eighth grade and joined by some alumni, were invited to play a short concert on June 20 as part of the hall's World Projects Program.

It is the first time in Sinai orchestra's 28-year history that it has been invited to perform at the August Hall; the invitation from the New York Band and Orchestra Festival grew out of its gold-medal performance last year at the Forum Music Festival in Valencia, said Bryna Weis Vener, the orchestra's director.

"It's very difficult to find festivals for little kids, and most take place on Shabbat," Vener said. The Forum Music Festival, fortunately, took place Friday morning, and Vener thought that winning the gold was enough.

"But as I was walking off the stage, the head of the festival asked, 'Would you be interested in playing at Carnegie Hall?" she recounted. "I thought he was kidding. But he handed me a DVD that explained the whole thing and asked to get in touch with our headmaster. Groups that got gold around the world were invited, and you had to send a videotape and application."

At the Carnegie recital, the orchestra played "The Moldau," composed by Bedrich Smetana; "Espana Cani," a Spanish folk song arranged by Merle J. Issac; "Hag Purim," an Israeli folk song arranged by Vener; and Beethoven's "Fifth" Symphony (Finale).

What really attracted the judges who chose the group to play at Carnegie Hall, Vener said, was the orchestra's rendition of "Hag Purim," which the group not only plays, but does a little dance to as well.

"Hag Purim" proved to be a crowd-pleaser; in it, the musicians, while playing their instruments, stand, do turns in unison and move up and down to the beat of the catchy melody.

"It's a nice little shtick -- we've been doing it for 28 years," Vener said. "The judges had never seen anything like it. The kids said, 'we're going to play Beethoven and shtick?' I said, 'It's shtick that's going to get you to Carnegie Hall.'"

It also took some money. The trip was not cheap; each participant had to pay about $1,000 to play, not including airfare and lodging.

The cost was offset through challah sales and other activities, and if a family still needed help, the school provided assistance, Vener said. The entire group consisted of about 350 people, with about half staying at a hotel and half staying with family or friends.

Mark Rothman, a parent of two children in the orchestra, said he chose not to send his children to New York both because of the financial burden and because "my primary concern was that this appeared to be more of a business venture for the sponsoring organization that also had an educational component rather than exclusively merit-based."

However, Rothman emphasized that Vener ensured that those who did not attend the Carnegie Hall show did not feel excluded.

The trip to New York included not only the big event, but a recital at an IBM atrium in Manhattan and a visit to a music studio where a conductor of Broadway shows worked with them for more than an hour, Vener said.

But it was the Carnegie Hall event, which lasted about 20 minutes, that was the pinnacle of the visit.

The Sinai Akiba orchestra was the first in the afternoon series, followed by youth orchestras from Iowa and North Carolina. The large hall was partially filled, primarily with parents and friends of the musicians; in the evening, three more orchestras, from Mission Viejo, Singapore and Pennsylvania played.

Caroline Delijani, who had three children playing in the orchestra, said her emotions took her by surprise.

"I thought it was just another concert, and then it sounded so different," she said. "The acoustics were so different -- it struck me. There's nothing like seeing your children playing at Carnegie Hall."

Heyman's mother, Jane, said there was something about being in the famous building that "adds an edge of culture.

"Carnegie Hall is much more a part of our culture. It's lost on the younger generation," she said. "It's like going to a couture house in France to see a designer. A lot of our culture is lost in fastness, and this is such a tradition that it needs to be nurtured. Even if none of these kids become professional musicians, this has given them a sense of pride, of accomplishment and dignity."

"I just thought it was amazing to play in the world's most renowned hall, even though I've only been playing for four years," said Ryan Delijani, 13, who plays the clarinet. "It shows what can happen if you work at it."

Of course, there is the question of peaking young. Ron Dassa, whose two children participated, said his 13-year-old son Elan figured that that he'd pretty much made it to the top.

"He said 'after this I don't have practice,'" Dassa said. "'I've made it to Carnegie Hall.'"

Alina Tugend is a New York-based writer who has written for the American Journalism Review, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

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