I had the privilege of seeing the Bahia Orchestra Project last night at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Orange County. They are a pioneering youth orchestra from the Brazilian state of Bahia, inspired by Venezuela’s famous “El Sistema”. Both programs provide free classical music training to youth to empower and enrich their lives. These young performers, ranging in age from 12 to 29, also include a few players from neighboring Argentina, Ecuador and Colombia. Together, they played with a precision and passion that brought the audience to their feet multiple times throughout the night.
Led by their conductor, Ricardo Castro, and joined by internationally acclaimed pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the orchestra showed off their world-class level playing, starting with traditional classical pieces by Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos. Most of the audience was older and classical music enthusiasts were not disappointed.
I’m not a huge fan of classical music so the real treat for me began towards the end, when they played a faster, more modern piece by Leonard Bernstein, as a gesture of thank you to the American audience. Then, Ricardo Castro asked if he could transport us to Brazil before ending the show and with unanimous approval from the crowd, he launched the orchestra into one of the most spectacular renditions of Aquarela do Brasil I’ve ever heard!
Reserved and poised since the beginning of the concert, the players finally loosened their postures, traditional Brazilian percussion instruments came out, and the sound was incredible! A mix of classical, bossa nova, samba and jazz sounds all blended and flowed from one to the next, as different players and their instruments took their turns in the spotlight, standing up to play and then sitting down, while the rest of the group swayed in unison to the rhythms.
With their syncopated movements together as they played, the orchestra had transformed themselves from a classical orchestra into a thrilling marching band that could easily wow crowds as much on Bourbon Street as in a concert hall. With jazz horns blaring, infectious Brazilian drumming and some talented players getting off their seats to dance samba, the last song was a rousing, exuberant finish to the concert. To get conservative 60 to 70-year-olds in their seats to get up out of their seats in standing ovation, whooping and hollering for more, is no easy feat and I heard multiple comments from regular patrons of the Soka Performing Arts Center that this was the best show in the center’s 2.5 years.
The group plays their only 2 LA shows tonight and tomorrow at the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge. Tonight they are playing a classical music program like last night and on Thursday, they are playing a special Samba Spectacular program. This orchestra can play with the best of them, when it comes to classical music, but their high-energy Brazilian performances are what sets them apart and what I was waiting for all night. If you go tonight, you will definitely be rewarded staying towards the end or just come Thursday!
Either way, don’t miss this orchestra on their first trip here! According to Monica Schuetz of NEOJIBA, the orchestra’s parent organization, most of the players saw snow for the first time in their lives, during their Midwest shows. For an orchestra that has only been around for about 6 years, with some players only having played less than a year, it’s been an incredibly inspiring tour for them as well as for audiences who get to see them. NEOJIBA is committed to expanding access to free music education and instruments to 4,000 young people throughout Bahia by the end of this year. They are always in need of funds and instruments, new or used, and you can support their efforts via their website.
The Soka Performing Arts Center is the newest concert hall in Orange County, situated on the gorgeous Soka University campus. I was last here to see Paris Combo and I love the venue, ample free parking and picturesque fountains — great place for couples…hint hint. Find out more about their events here. ~ Tom