Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra plays tribute to founder Ernst Katz

Luminaries such as Dick Van Dyke, Stefanie Powers, Ed Asner join in the tribute to the late Ernst Katz of Malibu.

By Jimy Tallal / Special to The Malibu Times

The Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra’s 73rd anniversary concert took place last Wednesday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles-the first time in its history without its founder, the late Ernst Katz, who died last year.

The evening was a tribute to his memory, featuring Katz’s nephew Gary S. Greene as conductor.

“The tribute concert was not just a memorial [for the audience], it was a memorial for the orchestra members as well and helped them work through the sadness of his passing,” trumpet player and Jr. Philharmonic alumnus Steve Ravaglioli said.

Greene added, “He dedicated his entire life to young people in music. It was a labor of love. He never got paid.”

Katz was the son of Russian immigrants and a child prodigy. At age 22, already 10 years into his career as a concert pianist, he founded the Little Symphony specifically for young people in Los Angeles in 1937. He wanted to give youth a chance to be heard, and did just that for the next 72 years. The organization later became known as the California Youth Symphony and then the Junior Philharmonic Orchestra.

Even today, Ravaglioli said, “There may be other youth orchestras, but they charge fees. There are no others like this anywhere.”

Katz himself had said, “The Jr. Philharmonic is non commercial and is not a business. Music transcends everything. It builds hope where hope doesn’t exist.”

Over the decades, the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra has given invaluable experience to thousands of advanced musicians ages 12 to 25, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds. Most stay for three to four years before going off to college. Some alumni have gone on to play in orchestras throughout the world, some even conducting. One, a trumpet prodigy by the name of Michael “Flea” Balzary, went on to become a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and currently lives in Malibu.

Malibu High School student Alissa Myer has been playing flute and piccolo for the Jr. Phil during her sophomore and junior years.

“I’ve learned to work collaboratively with the orchestra, [recognizing] who has the melody and how to showcase others,” she said. “It’s raised my standards for playing, because all of the other musicians are so [advanced]. It’s made me work harder trying to master a piece.”

Myer met Katz when he and his nephew Greene conducted her audition. “He was great,” she said. “You could tell he was really listening and still so connected to the music.”

Even in his mid-90s, Meyer said, “He sometimes came to rehearsals, and would wave and say hi.”

Myer had to wait a month to find out she was selected. When the phone rang and she saw Greene’s name on the caller ID, she thought, “Yes!”

“I was so happy. I was very excited.”

Only one out of every seven who audition for the Jr. Phil is chosen.

Rehearsals take place every Wednesday evening during the school year in Beverly Hills, along with three performances.

Myer said, “It’s a big commitment if you’re living in Malibu,” but “it’s the highlight of my week. It was the one [time] I wasn’t feeling pressure, and I could enjoy being in the middle of this group of people. It was very healing in the middle of the stress I had at school with AP classes, etc. It was just hard dealing with homework on those rehearsal nights.”

Some of the young musicians travel up to 100 miles for weekly rehearsals.

Ravaglioli, with his wife Bonnie Lockrem, who are both Malibu elementary school instrumental music instructors, participated in this year’s tribute concert as alumni members, with Ravaglioli on trumpet and Lockrem on violin. Both teachers had instructed Myer when she was in elementary school. Lockrem was familiar with the Jr. Phil because her father had played in it.

Ravaglioli said he observed Katz for more than 20 years after “one of my students in the 1980s was in the group. I like what he offered the students, and he had very high expectations of them: punctuality, practice and perseverance. “He was an excellent role model,” Ravaglioli continued. “He spoke eloquently, dressed well and treated the students with respect. He was very positive and nurturing toward the students. I’m touched by the alumni who return to play after so many years.”

The baton for the Jr. Philharmonic has now literally been passed to Greene, who became full-time conductor three years ago, and was concertmaster many years before that. Greene said every one of the numbers in the tribute concert was carefully chosen.

“It was a very personal musical program. I had my uncle’s scores in front of me,” Greene said. “He loved “Carmen” and “March Slav” was the piece everyone auditioned on. Dick Van Dyke, another Malibuite, has performed with us on numerous occasions, and Richard Sherman had given the orchestra the world premiere of his song, ‘It’s a Small World.’”

“I like to watch Gary work and teach students,” Ravaglioli said. “It’s fun for me to see someone else teaching music. He’s not only teaching music, but also teaching life skills to help students succeed. I appreciate what Gary has done for the orchestra. He’s a lawyer and he has a family and a business, and he’s a very busy man. [He] dedicates his life to carrying on the tradition begun by his uncle.”

More information on the Junior Philharmonic Orchestra can be found online at jrphil.org

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