ORANGE — When conductor John Koshak arrived in Orange County in 1971, Chapman University in Orange boasted two instrumental-music students, and the fledgling Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra was tackling high school-level arrangements.
Today, the youth group is one of three orchestras based at the university, plays only legitimate symphonic repertory, and has done so in Europe and Asia and at Carnegie Hall. Eighty-five students make up the Chapman Symphony, and the school's chamber orchestra tours regularly.
Koshak's teaching activities have been, shall we say, instrumental to those successes. But conducting remains his beat.
"With student musicians, you're working for two or three months toward [each concert], and there's lots of instruction," Koshak said. "Then in the last three weeks, they become a wonderful group of young artists, and that's when I have my defining moments. That's when I really begin to function as a conductor, and this is absolutely the most wonderful time in the world.
"I can think of a lot of times in concerts over 25 years when we were playing and there was this aesthetic thing running through our bodies--when I knew that's good. Usually when I feel that, they do too."
Koshak is head of instrumental studies at Chapman. Appreciative students and faculty are marking his quarter-century there with a pair of upcoming events.
Saturday, he'll lead the Chapman Symphony in the overture to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3, "The Polish."
On May 18, Koshak and the Youth Symphony will play Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 2 in D, with soloist Kara Brennan; Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World"; Alan Hovhaness' "And God Created Great Whales"; and Malcolm Arnold's "Four Scottish Dances."
Both concerts take place in Chapman Auditorium, and each will be followed by a special reception in the Argyros Forum.
Koshak, 58, is pleased with the state of the youth symphony. More than 200 young musicians audition each year for its 85 spots.
At the university, which Koshak says is the only school on the West Coast granting an undergraduate degree in conducting, he hopes to develop graduate programs in performance and conducting. (The school offers graduate degrees in most departments.)
Before his Chapman appointment, Koshak was a public-school music educator and conductor in New York, Germany, New Jersey and Bakersfield.
Koshak can recall many wonderful moments on the podium. He only remembers one he could have done without--"I tend to forget the bad things," he said--and that one didn't take place in Orange County.
In 1984, he had been invited to conduct master classes and to tour the outback with an Australian orchestra; the final concert was at the Conservatorium in Sydney and would be telecast live by the Australian Broadcast Corp.
"I was on stage during a session with the technicians about an hour before the broadcast," Koshak said. "The director said something to me, I turned around to answer and fell 6 feet into an open pit. They called emergency, and, honest to God, these guys came in with a blanket." He opted to go on.
"Basically I'd cracked my ribs, but the review the next day was nice. The writer was amazed how much musical expression this conductor could get out of the orchestra with so little movement."
* John Koshak conducts the Chapman Symphony in works by Mozart, Gershwin and Tchaikovsky on Saturday ($5-$10), and he leads the Orange County Youth Symphony in music by Hovhaness, Mozart, Arnold and Dvorak on May 18 ($4-$6). Both concerts are at 8 p.m. in Chapman Auditorium, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. (714) 997-6914.