Music News & Reviews

Orchestra Novo, Grizzly Youth Academy unite for SLO concert

Grizzly Youth Academy students draw and paint as they listen to a recording of Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” Their artwork will be featured as part of the Orchestra Novo concert “A Triumphant Heart,” May 29 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.
Grizzly Youth Academy students draw and paint as they listen to a recording of Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” Their artwork will be featured as part of the Orchestra Novo concert “A Triumphant Heart,” May 29 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.

The students at Grizzly Youth Academy in San Luis Obispo have encountered a lot of hardships in their relatively short lives: death, divorce, drugs, abandonment.

So it makes sense that they responded so strongly to a recording of Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” creating heartfelt illustrations that channeled the music’s profound emotions. That artwork, part of Orchestra Novo’s first Co-Creation collaborative art project, will be publically displayed Sunday during the orchestra’s season-closing concert at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.

“I was really blown away by what came out of this whole thing,” Orchestra Novo artistic director Michael Nowak said. “The connection between the music and art and imagination was a very wonderful experience for all of us.”

The idea for “A Triumphant Heart,” as both the art project and the concert are called, came from Los Osos music lover Eva von Franqué. After seeing the documentary “I Am Not a Rock Star” at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival a few years ago, she encouraged Nowak to bring the film’s subject, classical pianist Marika Bournaki, to San Luis Obispo.

Both von Franqué and Nowak were inspired by a scene in “I Am Not a Rock Star” in which Bournaki performs for school children who then create art based on what they hear.

“I started looking for pieces of music that would fit with orchestra and piano,” Nowak said, focusing on works that would appeal to younger listeners. He didn’t want anything too long, or too slow, and eventually settled on “Pavane.”

Next, Nowak looked for an age-appropriate audience to bring the music to.

“Michael approached us with the thought that the musical piece he had selected had a mature tone or content that would be a perfect fit for our students at Grizzly Academy,” said Paul Piette, Grizzly Youth Academy principal for 14 years.

Grizzly Youth Academy, a partnership between the California National Guard and the Grizzly Challenge Charter School, offers teenage students who have dropped out of high school, or are in danger of dropping out, a highly structured environment where they can learn leadership, cooperation and academic skills, according to the school’s website.

Creative expression is an important part of the school’s mission to educate well-rounded people, Piette said. “Art is not only a way to apply technical skill but it’s (also) a fantastic way for our students to express what’s going on inside of them,” he said.

Still, he said, the school had never participated in a project quite like this one.

In early May, Nowak and his wife, Suzette Harbour, visited the Grizzly Youth Academy campus to present a video created by Bournaki and “I Am Not a Rock Star” filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart inviting the students to participate in the “A Triumphant Heart” project.

All 200 students enrolled in the five-month residential program listened to “Pavane” — half heard a piano-only version, while the others heard an orchestral version — and responded with drawings and paintings.

“It was quite beautiful. The students really got engaged and reflective, just expressing what came up,” Piette said. “They naturally interpreted that this was a piece about grief or loss. … So many of our kids are dealing with grief and loss.”

The students’ art will be shown on screen Sunday as Bournaki and Orchestra Novo perform “Pavane.”

Sunday’s concert will also feature the Piano Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann and the Academic Festival Overture by Johannes Brahms. The San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts Ensemble will join the orchestra for “Hymn of the Fallen” by John Williams, featured on the soundtrack of “Saving Private Ryan.”

“A Triumphant Heart” is the fifth and final concert in Orchestra Novo’s inaugural season, which began in September 2015 with its Labor Day Pops concert.

Nowak, who has led Orchestra Novo since its inception, served as the San Luis Obispo Symphony’s music director for 31 years before his departure a year ago.

In a decision that was publically announced May 14, 2015, the symphony’s board of directors voted unanimously to terminate Nowak’s contract. The board hasn’t provided details on its decision to oust Nowak, only calling it a confidential personnel matter. The conductor said recently that he couldn’t speak about the split.

“I couldn’t stand the thought of not being together with the symphony musicians,” Nowak said. “There was a big hole in my heart thinking we were done.”

With Orchestra Novo, he said, “That was my main intent, to keep as much of our musical family together as possible.” The orchestra, which numbers 65 musicians at its largest, includes members of the San Luis Obispo Symphony, Symphony of the Vines and other local ensembles.

“We’re doing things that those other groups aren’t doing,” Nowak said, such as an upcoming New Year’s Eve concert that will feature Orchestra Novo musicians accompanying “The Wizard of Oz” live.

Orchestra Novo’s second season kicks off in September with a Labor Day pops concert at the Alex Madonna Expo Center in San Luis Obispo. Also in store are a string concert in October, a family matinee in February and a series of baroque concerts in March.

In addition, Nowak is looking forward to a future musical collaboration with another local group.

“This is just the first door we’ve opened in this grand scheme,” he said of “A Triumphant Heart.”

‘A Triumphant Heart’

3 p.m. Sunday

Cohan Center, Cal Poly

$24 to $44, $15 students

756-4849 or