Text by Phillip Townsend I Photos by Go Creative Group
hrough innovative leadership, creative collaborations and perhaps a bit of irreverence, Tulare County’s orchestra company is evolving to reach new audiences.
What do you think of when you hear the term symphony orchestra?
Dynamic camera shots with stirring imagery and captivating lighting? Rich harmonies with clarity and visuals that allow you to identify and appreciate the unique sound of each instrument? How about an artful dance number through the streets of Visalia? Surely you don’t automatically associate those words with YouTube or Instagram.
But this is today’s Sequoia Symphony Orchestra. Or, at least, an aspect of it. And it’s a compelling one.
A DIGITAL EVOLUTION
This is the new digital side of Tulare County’s orchestra company. It is part of a greater vision from Bruce Anthony Kiesling, the orchestra’s music director, and Joshua Banda, executive director, who desire to change the perception of this centuries-old art form. They wanted to add a new dimension to the experience of enjoying a symphony, hoping to not only reach existing audiences but also bring the wonder of classical music to new audiences.
They have already produced two series, “Musical Moments” and “Musical Uplink,” with more than 40 videos, which can be found across the web at sequoiasymphonyorchestra.com, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.
It’s all available for free. And this is only the beginning.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
In Episode 29 of “Musical Moments,” which Kiesling hosts, records and edits, he admits, “The orchestral world has a reputation for being” — he paused — “stuffy” was his word. (Banda once wrote a piece for Lifestyle Magazine acknowledging that “performing arts institutions such as the symphony struggle with a perception issue.”)
These two have set out to change that Kiesling, who’s been with the company 10 years, is immensely talented and shares an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music with infectious enthusiasm. Some may even consider him “a little irreverent at times,” he admits in an episode of “Musical Moments.” (Watch any of his episodes, like the one on drunkenness, and you’ll understand.) But his “irreverence” makes classical music fun and relatable for new audiences, as he humanizes these ancient composers and their art. “It’s music written for everybody,” he says.
He’s not always playful with the music, though. In their series “Musical Uplink,” we get to see the reflective maestro who has a deep appreciation for the music and its incredible history. It’s a perfect balance.
Banda, in his third year as executive director, is an innovative and long-term thinker with a unique musical perspective. He was not brought up in the traditions of classical music, as one might think, but rather jazz, big band, soul and funk — just the kind of background one needs to revitalize a genre that’s developed a staid reputation. Banda also has an open mind and encourages new and big ideas from his team. “I really enjoy the challenge that comes along with really changing the mindset, changing people’s perception about the symphony,” he says.
With the duo of Kiesling and Banda working in concert, the result is anything but stuffy.
2020: THE CATALYST
Before 2020, their video production ambitions were still ideas. Then came the pandemic. Instead of the sadness of, say, Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” or the doom and gloom of Verdi’s “Dies Irae,” Banda, Kiesling and company appeared to be inspired by the hopeful optimism of, perhaps, Vivaldi’s “Spring.” “We always looked at that as an opportunity,” Banda says of the pandemic.
Early in 2020, Kiesling was toying with an idea to show another side of the orchestra and music through video. Banda loved the idea and that led to “Musical Moments.”
Around the same time, Kiesling, Banda and orchestra manager Louise Gutierrez were trying to figure out what the next year would look like for the company. Rather than wait and see, they decided to cancel their live season through at least February 2021. “And by doing that,” Kiesling says, “it freed us up to say, ‘Okay, well what are we going to do instead?’”
The “instead” was a new series of videos showcasing musical performances. But they knew that they couldn’t replicate the live concert experience on video and didn’t want to just record a performance. It had to be more like a film designed for mobile screens that showcase the playing of the music in an engaging way, Kiesling says.
To produce it, they turned to someone who already knew the orchestra well: Niccolo Go, creative director of Go Creative Group and host of Joaquin Around. “He knew me. He knew the brand. He knew the vibe,” Kiesling says of Go. Through this collaboration, the “Musical Uplink” series was born.
LIKE A SPECIAL GUEST
In Episode 8 of “Musical Uplink,” we (the audience) have the pleasure of enjoying Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 2, Finale,” which features Dominic Cheli, a guest pianist from L.A. and friend of Kiesling’s.
The episode begins with Kiesling not in an auditorium but outside. Snow covers the ground. Kiesling stands in the shade of a majestic sequoia, another framing him on his right, as he presents an intriguing history of the music we’re about to hear.
Next, we find ourselves in the auditorium. Not in the seats, though. We’re on stage with Kiesling and the performers. Everyone’s in casual attire. Kiesling introduces the guest pianist.
They kibbitz. Then the musicians tune their instruments. We’re right in the middle, like we’ve walked into a rehearsal. And, Kiesling says, that’s exactly the feeling they wanted to create.
Then … with a hushed “one, two, one, ah!” from Kiesling, the music bursts forth, camera moving about the stage via cuts timed to the music. Each shot draws your attention to specific instruments. You can really see the skill of the musicians in a way not possible at a live performance. The bow stroking each string of the violin. Hands dancing deftly across the piano keyboard. The fingerplay over the keys of a clarinet. The musicians’ concentration. Despite the distance and the screen between the listener and performers, it feels uniquely intimate.
“We have big plans,” Kiesling says. Those plans do involve returning to in-person performances, maybe later this year, if all goes well. “I think people are going to be blown away by the scale of what we’re planning,” he says.
Banda and Kiesling promise new and exciting ideas on the digital front, too. Ideas like Episode 9 of “Musical Uplink” (which is online and a must-see). Set to Leonard Bernstein’s “Fancy Free” performed by the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra, it stars multitalented dancer Carly Caviglia and Broadway performer Angelo Soriano, both Visalia natives. The listener will follow them on a narrative dance through Visalia, with stops at landmarks such as the Fox Theatre and the Darling Hotel. “You will see Visalia like you have never seen it before!” the orchestra’s Instagram post teased.
Of course, all of this can only continue if we, the community of Tulare County, recognize the treasure that we have in our Sequoia Symphony Orchestra — and support it. So, visit sequoiasymphonyorchestra.com. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook. Subscribe to “Musical Uplinks” and “Musical Moments” on YouTube. Spread the word. Attend a live performance when they resume. Donate.
And don’t miss a moment of what’s to come.