Accent on Youth

David Benoit is one of the world’s highest profile jazz pianists. As the chief custodian of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack score, probably no one in the music industry works as steadily as he does during the holiday months.

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    Kirk Silsbee

Let’s make that mezzo forte. Everybody—one, two … and brass …

The Chadwick School in Palos Verdes is quiet and deserted on a Sunday afternoon in early March. But in an auditorium tucked far onto the campus—past a small group of patient parents seated in the hallway— young musicians who fill the studio listen intently to the gray-haired Benoit. He’s leading them through the first run-through of his new jazz and classical Piece For Electric Violin and Jazz Youth Symphony.

They’re preparing for their next concert at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center. Along with the world premiere of Benoit’s piece, the music of Haydn, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Chick Corea and John Williams will be essayed. It’s an impressive program for youngsters, some of whom are as young as 10 but none out of high school. The orchestra will also host Filipino tenor star Antoine Diel in May at Zipper Hall, located at the Colburn School of Music in downtown Los Angeles. Benoit founded this youth adjunct to the Asia America Symphony Orchestra; those two dates are part of the modest yet potent four concerts of the AASO’s 2012 schedule.

Young Jesse Chen, an earnest violin soloist, stands at Benoit’s side. He’s alternately sight-reading the written passages and supplying rhythmic fuel to the musical fire.  The lanky Chen executes coolly as the seven cellos and two contrabasses swell the string waves underneath him. This is an assemblage of young musicians who are particularly gifted, yet Chen’s poise and skills are exceptional, even for this group.

That’s perfect. No need to do it again.

The ages range from 10 to 17. At a time in the week when most of their contemporaries are watching television, playing video games or skateboarding, the members of the AAYO are exhibiting lots of focus and stamina. When Benoit calls for a break, they break out in chatter, move around or confer with assistant conductor, Joe Marino. Mostly their actions are centered on the music. Some stay in their places and jam briefly or engage in some kind of musical activity. A trombonist incredulously asks his section mates about one of the most celebrated modern jazz trombonists: “You’ve never heard of Curtis Fuller?” 

The youngsters come to this band in different ways. Some hear about the AAYO at Benoit’s concerts or from his website. Petite trumpeter Sara Sithi’s father told her about it. “My ideal situation,” she says, “is classical and jazz; David does both very well. I also compose, and I’ve been studying with him.” Sithi attends Orange County High School of the Arts, and the drive from Laguna Niguel to Chadwick takes more than an hour.

Bar 60 …  strings and woodwinds only. I want those 16ths really precise.

Corea’s landmark fusion composition “Spain” has the band on its collective toes. Trap drummer Riley Loftus is right at home with the bright tempo and complex rhythms. Guitarist Noah Pacifici, age 16, will later acknowledge the daunting key changes occurring with each chord change. But a nimble and harmonically inventive electric keyboard solo by Joel Wendhart is so bracing that Benoit will later concede that he himself needs to practice more.  

After the musicians have broken down their instruments and headed home, Benoit pauses in a nearby dressing room to discuss the challenges in directing a youth orchestra. “Part of it,” he relates, “is the time it takes; I don’t really get paid for. It takes an intense amount of organization. Also, with the union Asia America Symphony orchestra (AAS), you know they’re always going to be there. With this group, some people might and some people might not. It’s a big thing, trying to keep it all together. Some of them are more tied-in than others. Another challenge is that with the really good players, they’re playing in two or three different orchestras.”

Benoit continues, “I’ve seen that progression in the last 11 years: more and more kids are getting into music, and there’s so much more of an accent on youth. But unlike most school orchestras segregated into symphony, concert band and jazz ensemble—this is all mixed together. I try to get the classical kids to play jazz and the jazz kids to sight-read classical.”

What’s the biggest reward for Benoit? “When it all comes together. You see how rough it can start, and I have my doubts. But then everybody gets ‘up’ at the concert, and you see how happy the parents are.”

What are his hopes? “I’d like to see this orchestra tour.  And I’d also like to reach outside this community to Carson and Compton and the players who don’t have these opportunities.” 


David Benoit and the Asia America Symphony Orchestra will perform at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on June 29 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit