When Ameena Maria Khawaja and her husband, Danko Druško, moved from Los Angeles to Salinas in February, they knew life would be quieter. The musical duo had spent years performing in Europe; Khawaja, a cellist and mezzo-soprano, had been at the LA Philharmonic for a decade, and Druško is a conductor who’d led ensembles large and small. He became the music director and conductor of Youth Music Monterey and she became director of Youth Orchestra Salinas. (Druško is also music director and conductor at YOSAL.)
But they did not plan on a pandemic, which brought live performance to a sudden halt. In that unplanned slowdown, Khawaja started rethinking how the roughly 100 student musicians in the program might regroup. She tapped into music teacher connections from the LA Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, San Diego Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic to post instructional videos and offer private lessons via video chat. She transitioned YOSAL’s music theory and music history classes to online. The format will remain, even after YOSAL can return to in-person instruction.
“This virtual space has allowed us to pull in talent from everywhere,” Khawaja says. “We realized the potential for utilizing everyone we know, and we know a giant section of the music world.”
Students performed virtual recitals for each other as a season-ender this week, and YOSAL’s summer program will launch June 22. Unlike other music programs the nonprofit offers for kids who enroll and attend daily after-school classes, the Salinas Summer Symphony will be open to anyone with a Salinas zip code (and Salinas natives). “We want to showcase people’s talents who may be a lawyer or a journalist, but may play an instrument,” Khawaja says. “Our goal is to engage as many people as possible.”
All musicians who sign up will register as beginner, intermediate or advanced will receive a corresponding part – an excerpt of Beethoven’s Fifth, which Khawaja describes as “very exciting” – and have a month to practice with the aid of online videos, until July 24 in preparation for a virtual concert that will be streamed on July 31.
Yaretzi Martinez performed her oboe recital virtually on June 10 (she played Vivaldi), and plans to join the summer symphony. “Even though it’s virtual, I’d still like to participate,” she says. “I’d rather have activities to do in the summer.” She’s 13, entering North Salinas High next fall, and says music has given her daily after-school structure the way her sister has played sports.
Martinez cycled through a few instruments before settling on oboe last year – French horn, cello, flute – because it’s uncommon, and she wanted a challenge.
For Khawaja, the summer symphony is also a chance to reintroduce YOSAL to the community at large. She hopes to recruit more kids, who must commit to a rigorous schedule of daily after-school music classes (all free, for first – through 12th-graders), and put a spotlight on Salinas for classical music. “It’s ambitious, but doable,” she says.