When Dr. Thomas Loewenheim was 14 years old, his mother told him if he practiced his cello enough, he could attend an international music festival in Austria. Living in Israel, his family often vacationed in Europe during the summer, but he was excited to immerse himself for two weeks in music at a beautiful location.
The experience was a pivotal moment for him as a musician. He worked with talented teachers and met other students from all over the world who had the same passion for music he did. The adventure caused him to realize music is what he wanted to do with his life.
Loewenheim aims to provide the same inspiration for his students through the FOOSA (Fresno Orchestra and Opera Summer Academy) program at Fresno State.
“I wanted to share this experience with my students and with my colleagues here in Fresno. Just to be able to build an international festival here in Fresno so my students get a similar experience as I did.”
When Loewenheim started teaching at Fresno State, many of his students could not afford to attend festivals.
“Festivals are very expensive to go to,” he explained. “You’re talking about 3, 4, 5, 6-thousand dollars at least just for the tuition and then the travel and the housing, etcetera. Most of the students here don’t have the means to do that.”
To overcome this, he built an academy in Fresno his students could afford to attend. He invites outside faculty and recruits students from around the world to participate in FOOSA to provide the same immersion experience found at the prominent festivals in Europe
“It gives us the opportunity to bring the world to Fresno and present Fresno to the world,” said Loewenheim, reiterating the FOOSA slogan.
FOOSA partners with the Fresno Youth Orchestra to raise funds for student scholarships, and most students who attend FOOSA receive assistance.
In a culminating experience, the festival performs a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles every year. Students have the opportunity to feel what it is like to be a professional musician in a world-class venue.
“Disney Hall is one the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but it is also one of the top, if not the top, music concert halls in the United States,” Loewenheim said.
This year FOOSA is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and Loewenheim wanted to give something back to the community. Rather than performing at Disney Hall, he moved the culminating concert to the William Saroyan Theatre in downtown Fresno.
The Gala Concert, “From Sorrow to Celebration: Mahler 5 at the Saroyan,” is at 8 p.m. Friday, June 24. Admission is free with registration, and the community is invited to experience the 100-piece FOOSA orchestra performing Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, followed by Gustav Mahler’s 5th symphony. Additionally, a free concert featuring the concerto composition winners will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 25, at the Fresno State Concert Hall.
“If you want to hear Mahler’s Symphony Number 5 on this level, you would most likely have to drive to San Francisco; you’d have to drive to L.A. Tickets are 200 or 300 dollars each. It’s an expensive experience,” said Loewenheim. “This year, post-COVID, with everything that happened with us not performing for two years, this is an opportunity for us to give something back to the community.”
In his Fifth Symphony, Mahler delivers a heartfelt love letter to his future wife while reaching for emotion beyond words. Grief and loss are transformed through the power of love into joy and jubilation.
“It’s a trip. It’s a journey. You’re coming to experience an hour-long journey that takes you through so many different emotions and feelings,” said Loewenheim. “You can sink into the world of music and disappear. It’s all up to your imagination and your feelings to create the story and the world that you want to be in.”
A live orchestra, he said, is something that has been missed during COVID-19 times. What’s lost is the interaction between the instrument, the musician’s passion and the audience. If you go to a movie, you are spoon-fed entertainment. With an orchestra, you are immersed in the music around you. Each person experiences their own adventure in their imagination, yet each is part of a collective and interactive reality.
“What happens in a live concert that doesn’t happen on the radio is that interaction. You see the live musicians, and it’s a visual and audible experience. You’re surrounded by people who came to feel that experience.”
As for the future, Loewenheim has big plans for FOOSA. He envisions a three or four-week festival in a new high-quality concert hall built in Fresno to present world-class concerts to enrich the local region.
“If you go to festivals in Europe, you see how the economy of the whole town is then becoming built around those festivals.”
He imagines people coming from all over the country to attend the festival – visiting the nearby national parks, enjoying our local food and wineries and visiting other attractions during the day, then attending high-quality concerts in the evening.
“The sky is the limit. If we could break through and make it happen, I think it could make a humongous difference in the cultural, reputation and financial aspects of our city.”
His vision for FOOSA is a piece of a larger perspective that inspires his life.
“My ultimate goal is to create world peace through music.”
The FOOSA Philharmonic is a pre-professional orchestra that allows advanced musicians of college and high school age to enjoy a side-by-side performance experience with faculty members. Students enjoy daily private lessons, daily orchestra rehearsals and sectionals and recital opportunities with the full-time immersion program.
This year’s experience also includes a professional orchestral recording session in addition to the two Fresno performances. FOOSA is a partnership between Fresno State and the Youth Orchestra of Fresno.
Top photo: Dr. Thomas Loewenheim conducts the Fresno State Orchestra during the Violins of Hope event in 2021.