For 22 years the Mission Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of its founder and music director Emily Ray, has been delighting audiences with whimsical and musically diverse concerts that highlight local performers and composers.
The orchestra’s programs mix old favorites with less familiar works and often premiere contemporary works, frequently by local composers. The orchestra is also known for its annual Portuguese-themed concert in June at the Five Wounds Church in San José.
Valentines Day always sparks Ray’s imagination, and this year’s concert features a trip to Italy with one of the Bay Area’s most romantic singers, tenor Pasquale Esposito, who is known to his fans as simply ‘Pasquale.’
On Feb. 10 he’ll be performing with the Mission Chamber Orchestra at San José’s Trianon Theater in A Night With the Italians, featuring vocal and orchestral operatic favorites, Neapolitan songs (the perennial favorite Turna Surriento—Come Back to Sorrento—is on the bill) as well as some contemporary songs and less-known Italian orchestral works—all at the very affordable ticket price of $25.
Pasquale has a long connection to Ray: he studied piano with her when he attended Foothill College. Several years later his manager called Ray about a talented tenor and the possibility of this singer performing with the orchestra.
The tenor turned out to be her former student, who was gaining acclaim for his lyrical tenor voice and performances of Italian songs and opera arias. Since then, he has performed several times with the Mission Chamber Orchestra. This is the second Valentines Day concert he has done with the group.
Ray has been conducting in the Bay Area since she made her conducting debut with the UC Berkeley Symphony in 1975. She has taught at Santa Clara University, Mission and Foothill Colleges, and currently teaches orchestra and piano in Eastside Union High School District in San José. She was formerly music director of the Nova Vista Orchestra.
Ray founded Mission Chamber Orchestra in 1996 with a core group of musicians and the first challenge the fledgling group faced was trying to find a performing home. Originally planning to perform in San José, the orchestra found the well-known San Jose venues far beyond their means. She was teaching at Mission College at the time and the college invited her to bring the orchestra there and perform.
Mission Chamber Orchestra’s first performance was in the “center space” of the original Mission College administration building.
Although it was a welcoming space it wasn’t the best, Ray recalls. Office phones rang during performances and, as it was designed to function as an office building, it didn’t have good acoustics for music. “Then someone told me about Le Petit Trianon, now the Trianon Theater,” she said. It was affordable and the orchestra has made the 1920s architectural gem its home ever since.
The small space dictated that the group remain a chamber orchestra, traditionally defined as an ensemble of 50 or fewer musicians that performs in smaller, more intimate venues than a symphony hall.
Bringing people to modern music is one of Ray’s missions. Audiences are often turned off when they see modern works on the program, she said. Contemporary music got a “bad rap” in the 20th century and people think of harsh, discordant sounds when they think of modern music.
“My personal mission is to make people realize there’s appealing, melodic music being written today,” she said. Local composers also get special attention in Ray’s concerts and the orchestra has premiered works by Los Gatos composer Craig Bohmler and Mountain View composer Nancy Bloomer Duesson.
“The pendulum has really swung in different direction. A lot of the music being written today is sounds like movie music because many of today’s composers have written movie music. And that goes back to the style of the Romantic period, where ‘program’ or ‘pictorial’ music was very popular.”
Another mission Ray is passionate about is providing opportunities for young musicians to perform. On Feb. 10, musicians from Evergreen Valley High School will join the Mission Chamber Orchestra on stage.
“One of the things we’ve always done is include high school string players to perform with us on stage for one or two pieces. It gives them experience playing with more advanced performers and gives them opportunities to see there are opportunities to perform music after you leave school, there’s a spot for them in the community to perform music.”
For more information about A Night With the Italians on Feb. 10 and the Mission Chamber Orchestra, visit www.missionchamber.org or call (408) 236-3350. Hear the Mission Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Nancy Bloomer Deussen’s Transit of Venus at youtu.be/mNQKdKE17kE.