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Musical Interests Go Beyond the Podium

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She had just spent the last two days living out of an airport, thanks to the big Eastern storm. But travel frustrations had done nothing to lower the high Yvette Devereaux got from the Pierre Boulez Conductors/Composers Workshop in New York.

"It was tremendous," she says. "Things I always wanted to know about--particularly in works of 20th-Century composers--I was able to ask about."

A zeal for learning new things seems characteristic of Devereaux. A violinist with a raft of studio orchestra experience--including playing for the soundtrack for "Captain Ron," due out on video Wednesday--she is also in her first season as music director of the Southeast Symphony, which has its next concert Sunday.

"As a performer, my goal is to perform as well as possible, and my instrument is the orchestra," she says. "The more you learn, the more you can say."

Devereaux was born in Los Angeles, and her career is testimony to the training she received in the music program in the Compton public schools. For example, she says that in 1969 there were 120 children in her school orchestra and 280 in a district orchestra, plus four chamber orchestras.

She also is a product of the Los Angeles Young Philharmonic, and regularly visited Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsals.

"This is what I did from 8 to 18," she states matter-of-factly. She also learned flute and piccolo to be in the band.

"I was the drum major, which is where I really started conducting," she recalls, "although I first conducted at my elementary school graduation, when I was 11. I remember doing a four-beat pattern and just sticking to it."

Devereaux loves playing the violin and teaching, but conducting--for the studios, as well as symphonically--is her aim, despite the acknowledged odds.

"I'm sort of surprised that we have all these American orchestras without American conductors," she says. "It's sad. I want to be another Leonard Bernstein. He never stopped the music, he kept something going all the time."

From Compton, Devereaux went on to Chapman University and the Peabody Conservatory. Now she is working on a Ph.D. in musicology at UCLA, specializing in African-American composers.

"The ultimate goal," she says of her current studies, "is to get the music rescued, edited, published, performed, recorded--and, hopefully, sold."

Given this background, it is not surprising to find her aghast at the state of music education in the public schools today. Recently proposed plans, for example, could eliminate the last remnants of music from the battered Los Angeles Unified School District.

"We don't have a voice in music education, on the state or federal level, to fight for us and lobby against this," Devereaux says. "It's not just a matter of money--there are stratagems that could be devised. We should have visiting artists in the schools, real artists. The whole program needs to be remapped."

Orchestras large and small are struggling to fill the gaping holes in education, and the Southeast Symphony is no exception.

"We have a group called the Docents," Devereaux says. "Each docent has a school. One week before the concert, the docent and I go in, maybe with a soloist from the orchestra. We give a synopsis of the concert.

"I'm very concerned about our audience--the next generation--for symphonic music, period. The only way we're going to save our orchestras is to get away from the stereotypes of who should listen to what. We don't trust the music, we don't trust the composer enough to let music speak for itself."


Devereaux is also rethinking the nature of community orchestras, such as her 45-year-old Southeast Symphony. She is resisting the common quick-fix urge to plug a handful of itinerant pros into the orchestra before concerts.

"I'm trying to go back to the community level," she says. "It should have community players. It's nice to see your neighbor playing--that's what a community orchestra is all about. It's about playing, and getting experience with repertory."

The concert Sunday, at John Burroughs Junior High School, features winners of the orchestra's scholarship competition. This year they are tenor Nmon Ford-Livene, clarinetist Theresa Schumacher and pianist Tsuguyo Somatsu.

In the aftermath of the riots last year, we all heard about the healing power of art. Devereaux suggests that firmly rooted, responsive and adventurous orchestras that communities can call their own are more important than ever.

"That (the riots) was about how people feel, and that's what music is about," she says. "Most composers write from experience, from their souls. It brings people together. We all have a heart, a mind and a soul, and music has no color or gender."

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