This week, more than 80 young musicians have arrived in town to participate in the Henry Mancini Institute's fifth season. Over the next four weeks, they will receive an intensive exposure to music of every genre, from jazz to classical, from pop to film scores.
They will have the opportunity to perform as a full orchestra, in a big band setting and in small ensembles. They will appear on programs with artists such as Diana Krall, Shirley Horn, Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride, Terence Blanchard, Bob Brookmeyer and John Dankworth, and in performances conducted by Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldstein and others.
With some of the programs taking place at the Hollywood Bowl, the Wadsworth Theatre and UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, the concentrated sequence of activities makes for a heady experience for the young players, some of whom are having their first exposure to such a wide array of music.
"It's all new for me," says 27-year-old violinist Jorge Soto. "I'm classically trained, and that's mostly what I've done as a performer. So this will be a very new experience for me. I've played a bit in some mariachi bands, but I've had no connection with jazz or film music or anything like that, so it's all new territory."
Soto, who was born in Tijuana, moved to San Diego as a child. He comes from a musical family: His mother and sister are violinists, one brother is a cellist, another plays trumpet.
"I don't really know exactly what to expect," he says, "but I'm really looking forward to it. Musicians today have to be familiar with other genres than classical music. Otherwise you only have one door open to you, and the truth is that there are many other doors."
Woodwind specialist Ray Pizzi, a teacher at the Mancini Institute since the beginning, is well aware of the potentials that lie behind those many doors. A veteran of 30 years in the Los Angeles studios, playing every imaginable sort of music on instruments ranging from saxophones to bassoons, Pizzi is also a highly regarded jazz artist. His jazz dossier includes stints with Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Shelly Manne and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Mancini fans may recall his whimsical rendering of the theme from "The Pink Panther" on bassoon during Mancini-conducted concerts.
One of the principal tasks Pizzi is dealing with this year is the introduction of improvisation to the many young artists who have never played anything that wasn't written on a sheet of music. His approach takes a broad view, unrestricted by genre.
"I've tried to simplify the process," he says. "I don't let them sit around worrying about whether they can play jazz or not. I start with the blues--basic blues. I have them write out a blues scale, I tell them what it is, and I tell them to use it to make a melody. And suddenly these kids are using their imaginations, playing things that they've never thought of before. By the time their first lesson is over, they've written a 16-bar tune."
For bassist Marco Panascia, 28, from Catania, Italy, jazz and classical music go hand in hand. Returning to the Mancini Institute for a second time (his first season was in 2000), Panascia's goal in coming to the United States three years ago was to "improve his jazz playing."
"I studied classical music for 12 years, between piano and bass," he says. "But even though I had all that classical study, I felt that jazz was the genre that had more to offer me."
Panascia has been studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston for the past 21/2 years as a scholarship student, and he finds the Mancini Institute sessions a particularly useful supplement, largely because of the diverse activities.
"I was sort of prejudiced," he says, "coming from Europe, where there's a heavy classical tradition, and people tend to feel that jazz and classical can't be put together. But when I was at HMI last year, the things I experienced really proved me wrong. It was an amazing experience to be in an 80-piece orchestra, to play in a bass section behind the cellos, and also play rhythm bass with piano and drums. It was a real revelation. I never thought it would be possible to put together a jazz rhythm section with a full-fledged orchestra."
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Mancini Institute concerts has always been the interaction among the students and the guest artists. Panascia warmly recalls his first exposure to bassist Christian McBride.
"Christian had been an idol of mine for several years," he says, "and it was so great to meet him, and the other artists, and realize they're just human beings like anybody else. The funny thing is that we're actually the same age. But when I was 17, I wasn't even sure if I'd have a career in music at all, and he was already playing with Freddie Hubbard in New York."
Panascia may not be quite ready to play on that level when he finishes up the month at HMI, but--like Soto and the 82 other scholarship students--he will have an expanded view of his potential for a career in music.