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Album / Ernst Katz's family

Generations in Concert

At the Junior Philharmonic, conductor Ernst Katz leads a symphony of close-knit loved ones, who pitch in behind the scenes as well.

May 30, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

The maestro gives the downbeat, and the concertmaster--the maestro's nephew--raises his bow. The principal cellist--another nephew--raises his bow. The stage manager and violinist--the maestro's great-niece--raises her bow, and the harpist--the maestro's niece--positions her fingers.

This is no mere orchestra. It's a dynasty.

It all began in May 1938 when Ernst Katz, a young man who'd toured as a concert pianist from age 12, presented his own neophyte 30-piece Little Symphony orchestra in concert at a community hall in East Los Angeles.

The orchestra, later the California Youth Symphony and today the Junior Philharmonic of California, grew and prospered--with only one conductor, the indefatigable and perpetually enthusiastic Katz.

The only son of an immigrant (who brought his sewing machine from Russia and in 1923 founded the Golden Gate Hat & Cap Co. in Los Angeles), the maestro never married and had no heir to whom he could pass his baton. But his sister Silvia Greene, a former vaudevillian who was the orchestra's first pianist, and her husband, Walter, solved that dilemma.

They produced Gary, now 49, lawyer and violinist; Terry, 46, president of the hat company and a cellist; and Lori, 43, who has an MBA in art management and plays the harp.

"If it weren't for my family, I wouldn't be here," says Katz, who at "over 75" increasingly relies on the relatives to handle the logistics of the orchestra's concerts, including the 62nd anniversary gala, to be held Wednesday at the Shrine Auditorium with 125 musicians and guest soloist Pat Boone.

Katz couldn't have envisioned such an ensemble when he scrabbled together that first orchestra, moving the furniture out of his house to create a rehearsal hall, picking his young musicians up in his rumble-seated Chevy roadster so they'd keep coming back. To this day, the orchestra's motto is "Give youth a chance to be heard."

Musicians are chosen by audition and stay on average three to four years, although some stay longer and some alumni return. Today the Junior Philharmonic, though predominately youthful, includes musicians of all ages.

*

For Katz and his clan, it's a case of the family that plays together stays together.

And this family, with Uncle Ernst as patriarch, is as close as families get.

"The key is that everyone has to be an integral part of everything," Lori says. "Everyone in this family wears half a dozen different hats, not to make a pun."

Togetherness is a way of life. Family central is a family-owned building on Fairfax Avenue opposite Farmers Market that houses Gary's law offices, the hat business and the Junior Philharmonic office. As youngsters, Gary, Terry and Lori lived under the same roof with their uncle and grandparents in a Fairfax area duplex. To this day, family members share each birthday and each holiday.

So was there ever any question that the younger generations would join Uncle Ernst's orchestra?

None.

"There's a picture of me at 1 year old sitting on a chair at the [Wilshire] Ebell," Lori says. She'd attend concerts and rehearsals with her mother and grandmother, just as her daughters Victoria, 5 (who's studying violin), and Natalie, 3, do with her.

Already, they talk of joining the orchestra.

At 10, Lori wanted to play the viola. But her mother, "who was a little more flamboyant," she recalls, steered her to the harp. She's glad.

"The harp is a fabulous instrument," Lori says. "I love how it fits into the orchestra with the other instruments." And, she adds, "you're the only one. If somebody says, 'That's good,' you know you did it."

At 5, Gary remembers "sitting right near the concertmaster" when "I made the decision that someday I was going to play the violin and be concertmaster." At 6, he studied piano with his uncle and, at 11, started violin lessons. At 13, he joined the orchestra.

A little favoritism, perhaps?

Hardly, he says.

"Others were admitted when they were 12. I couldn't play well enough," Gary says. Once accepted, he had to work his way up "from the back of the second violin section" to first violin.

Terry "played the piano for three weeks" before taking up cello at age 10. When he'd been a 6-year-old watching rehearsals with his grandfather (who'd buy the kids candy at break time), "the cello was right in front of me. I just liked the way it sounded."

He too earned his stripes.

"It took me about seven years" to become principal cellist, he says.

Katz says he "never, never" pressured the youngsters to join his orchestra but, rather, "introduced them to music," just as he'd been introduced as a boy. He remembers: "The first time I heard the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, I thought I was in heaven."

"I guess," says Terry, "if your uncle was a baseball player and you hung out at Yankee Stadium, you'd want to be a baseball player."

*

Gary laments cutbacks in school music programs.

"So much has been lost this last generation," he says. "If we'd given young people the opportunity to play music, to listen to music, we'd have a different country today."

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