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Students Reach for High Note

A dedicated teacher, a nurturing community and a passion for music propel a Santa Monica school symphony to the stage at Carnegie Hall.


NEW YORK — Nonchalance is not an option when making your Carnegie Hall debut. Just ask 15-year-old Sarah Crespo-Szabo.

"I'm so nervous my hands are shaking," the percussionist confides to a cellist moments before the Santa Monica High School Symphony walks onstage.

Crespo-Szabo and her 78 orchestra mates had spent months preparing for this moment, and, typical teenagers, many wanted to seem blase. But now, as they are about to play music by Tchaikovsky in the hall where he had conducted 111 years earlier, palms grow clammy, mouths go dry, bellies churn.

As the musicians troop out to the stage's glare, the first-chair trumpet, who had been sick in bed during that morning's Carnegie run-through, gets his first peek at the towering tiers of loges and the creamy, gold-bedecked walls. Wide-eyed, he utters, "Whoa!"

Somewhere between "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Music of the Heart" lies the tale of how the Santa Monica High School Symphony played Carnegie Hall.

This is not, like that first Hollywood weeper, a story about a music teacher postponing the opus of a lifetime to devote himself to his students. Nor is it, like the other, a saga of underprivileged youngsters defying the odds to land on the music world's quintessential stage.

But two elements of those films run like leitmotifs through this account: the ability of a committed mentor to push kids to new heights, and the power of a caring community to provide the lift.

And then, of course, there was the force of the music itself.

After the musicians take their seats, the blond concertmaster--looking like the West Coast surfer he is--steps onto the podium and cues the principal oboist for an "A." He matches that "A" with his violin and the strings and winds join in, the rich sound swelling.

Conductor Christopher Schwabe strides onstage and, beaming, acknowledges the audience's applause. He turns to face his charges, appearing older than their years in their black-and-white concert wear.

As Crespo-Szabo steadies her sticks above the snare drum, Schwabe raises his baton but hesitates. He knows that the first note will set the tone. Are they ready?

A Confidence That Knows No Bounds

The joke is as corny as they come. But that doesn't keep Schwabe from repeating it over seven months of rehearsals.

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" he taunts his students. "Practice, practice, practice."

That they do not groan at this chestnut is but one indication of their youth--as if another is needed amid this sea of bare midriffs and toe rings (on the girls), moussed hair (on the boys) and precariously low-slung pants (on both).

"Can we start together, please?" Schwabe asks in frustration after a mushy launch of the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. It is January, and the Carnegie trip a mere 2 1/2 months away. For 55 minutes, Schwabe scolds and praises. "Much more speed of bow," he orders the violins. "Very nice," he tells the timpanist.

He reserves his favorite compliment--"That really sparkled!"--for when things go just so. Privately, his confidence in them knows no bounds. He is 61 and gray-haired but has abundant energy and no plans to retire. What no one realizes, including Schwabe, is that the school district will reach a financial crisis before the year ends.

Since September, they have rehearsed the second and fourth movements from the Tchaikovsky symphony. In November, they took on Leonard Bernstein's giddy "Candide" Overture.

Schwabe chose the pieces after considering the ensemble's strengths (violins and horns) and weaknesses (inexperienced percussion and too few violas).

He also gave a nod to Carnegie's vivid past. Tchaikovsky conducted there opening night, May 5, 1891. And composer-conductor Bernstein's personal history was famously intertwined with the hall after his last-minute substitution for the ailing Bruno Walter at a nationally broadcast 1943 concert with the New York Philharmonic.

Schwabe's musical picks would challenge many college orchestras, and they are as the composers wrote them; no watered-down arrangements for this bunch.

As dozens of trophies attest, this is one of the finest high school ensembles in California. The orchestra will perform, along with two youth orchestras, at the invitation of MidAmerica Productions, an independent producer that arranges such concerts. Thanks to its reputation, the orchestra didn't have to submit an audition tape.

And yet, in the final movement of the Fifth, starting with measure 414, it struggles. The passage proves persistently troubling, with its gorgeous melody but thorny, chromatic progression through sharps, flats and naturals that don't appear in the key signature.

They play it again and again and again.

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