Music for a mission

Achieving interfaith harmony is a dream for many and a reality for the San Diego Interfaith Choir and Orchestra. That makes it a perfect partner for Interfaith Community Services.

The recently renamed ensemble is teaming up with ICS to help the needy. The orchestra plans to donate proceeds from its upcoming March 9 concert and future performances to assist with Interfaith’s efforts to aid the homeless.

The idea to help others grew out of the orchestra’s participation last spring in a fundraising concert to help an Escondido boy in need of an islet-cell transplant.

“We had the opportunity to help someone,” said Cathy Gray, a violinist and the orchestra’s personnel manager. “Then (after the concert), we said, ‘Hey, let’s partner with someone we can help and make it our mission to help the needy.”

Given the orchestra’s name, which it changed in 2012 from San Diego Mormon Choir and Orchestra, a tie-in with ICS was a logical choice.

Previous performances at interfaith Thanksgiving services in Escondido and the presence on the ensemble board of the Rev. Faith Conklin, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church and a devoted ICS supporter, made the partnership with ICS an easy decision.

“We just felt good about it,” said Gray.

The feeling was mutual.

“They really are incredible,” said Jason Coker, Interfaith’s director of communications. “The first time I heard them at the interfaith service, I was just blown away by the quality of musicianship. There really are world-class musicians and choir singers participating in this.”

That professionalism is by design. The group was formed in April 2010 by Gray and her husband, Justin, the longtime music director at Welk Resorts. Their idea was to provide an opportunity to perform for high-quality musicians who aren’t necessarily able to pursue professional careers.

Many in the group are professionals who are volunteering their services to the orchestra. About 50 instrumentalists and 100 choir members are on the roster. They play and sing when they are able.

“Our mission statement is to do something fun and have a high-level opportunity for people who don’t normally have them, to bring together people of different faiths and to use the proceeds to benefit Interfaith Community Services,” said Justin, the orchestra’s conductor and musical arranger.

The orchestra performs a mix of music ranging from sacred hymns and classical standards to rock ‘n’ roll and novelty pieces – sometimes all together.

“We really want to do something different. We tell people if they want to hear a Beethoven symphony, go down to Symphony Hall and have a nice evening of culture. If you want to mix things up, come hear us,” said Justin. “You may not like everything in the concert, but you will like something.”

The orchestra does do Beethoven, but not always in a way people might remember.

“At one concert, we started with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and on the repeat, we put in a banjo solo,” said Cathy.

Everything they do is designed to entertain and to demonstrate the high caliber of musicianship.

“We’re not the San Diego Symphony, but we’re going to be better than your average community orchestra,” said Justin.

“We’re not just another orchestra. When people hear us, they say, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ said Cathy, noting that some of the instrumentalists are in the San Diego Symphony.

The group performs two concerts a year, with weekly rehearsals beginning six weeks before the show for the choir and three weeks before for the orchestra. Auditions were held in January, but prospective musicians can set up a tryout by e-mailing justingraymusic@gmail.com.

The next concert is titled “Celebrating Creation.” It features the choir and orchestra performing selections from Haydn’s “Creation,” Saint-Seans’ “Carnival of the Animals,” unique arrangements of hymns from various faith traditions and a piece called “Catcerto,” by Mindaugas Piecaitis, based on the YouTube videos of a piano-playing cat.

The concert is at 7 p.m. March 9 at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. Tickets range from $12-$21. Visit sandiegointerfaithchoir.com or call the arts center box office at 800-988-4253.

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