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Merced Symphony introduces kids to classical and jazz

Next time he wants to have a good time, Spencer Wilde might reach for music from composers Leonard Bernstein or Benny Goodman – now that he knows who they are.

The fourth-grader from Mitchell Elementary in Atwater was one of almost 2,000 elementary school children who heard one of two performances by the Merced Symphony on Friday in the Merced Theatre.

“I think it was really awesome,” the 10-year-old said, adding he might like to pick up a violin. “I really like the sound, and I think it might be easy – or hard maybe.”

Youngsters from Merced, Atwater, Gustine, Mariposa and Snelling filled much of both levels of the acoustically sound theater.

Merced Symphony conductor Henrik Jul Hansen led roughly 40 musicians through the theme from “The Magnificent 7” and segments of “West Side Story,” as well as jazz classics such as “In the Mood “ and “Don’t be That Way,” among other songs.

“The whole objective is to keep arts alive in the classrooms,” said Valerie LeDuc, the student events supervisor for the Merced County Office of Education.

Before the performance, the students got a packet of information on the types of instruments they would see and instructions on how to conduct themselves at a symphony performance, LeDuc said.

Dong Yoon Lee, a 13-year-old from Cruickshank Middle School in Merced, performed on the piano during the show. Jim Kocher, who works with United Way, dressed as a character from “The Barber of Seville” to shave one baby-faced first-grader during the opera’s most recognizable piece of music.

Teacher Dee Gardner said the timing was perfect for her fourth-grade class from Mitchell Elementary in Atwater because the school offers music programs for children in fifth and sixth grades.

For more than 40 years, the Merced Symphony has been introducing children to the classics, jazz and other music they may have never heard, said Merced Symphony Association President Judy Smith. She said the program is a way to perhaps introduce the next Ennio Morricone or Johannes Brahms to music, because they can’t all be NBA star Stephen Curry or San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey.

“A lot of kids are into sports, but a lot of kids are not athletically gifted,” she said. “So there has to be an outlet for them. The arts – music and plays and art – are another outlet.”

Smith said she is on a campaign to develop a youth orchestra for the Merced area.