The agricultural port city of Stockton, California has made national and international news in recent years for all the wrong reasons. In a new record, the city recently marked its fifty-sixth homicide in a year. And the BBC recently reported that a greater proportion of Stockton residents face the loss of their homes to foreclosure or repossession than anywhere else in America. If that's not enough, it ranked No. 1 on Forbes Magazine's list of the "most miserable cities" in the United States in 2011. And now Stockton is in the news again as the town teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.
Against this seemingly endless string of bad news, one of the city's prized institutions is trying to address some of Stockton's problems. Tomorrow night, the Stockton Symphony will premiere a new piece it has commissioned from noted Israeli composer Avner Dorman that it hopes will help address the city's longstanding cultural and racial divides.
Jane Kenworthy, the orchestra's executive director, says that the performing arts need to be part of the community's healing. "Our orchestras need to be embedded in the community and not sitting above it, behind the concert hall doors," she says, adding that Dorman brought a certain kind of background knowledge to Stockton's dilemmas. "He got it right away," she says. "You know, Avner's from Israel. And my God, if there was ever a place where they're dealing with daily conflict and people who don't talk to each other, Israel's a place."
Dorman, whose works have been performed by major orchestras around the world, proposed writing a narrated piece for children based on a popular Israeli fairytale called "Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu," by author Ephraim Sidon.
It's the story of two brothers driven apart by a silly argument. They erect a wall between them down the middle of their house and their descendants come to believe that monsters live on the other sides. Generations later, a curious boy climbs the wall only to discover there are no monsters: there's just another family like his.
Intrigued by the story, Dorman asked the author to elaborate on its meaning. "This story is about every family in the world," Dorman recounts. " It's also about big politics and it's also about wars ... but you don't have to go far to find yourself in this story. People in Stockton could relate to that story so immediately."
In November, Dorman came to Stockton for the first of two residencies. He visited several schools to test out samples of his work-in-progress. It was the fourth graders at Julia Morgan Elementary who proved to be a tough audience.
"They have not learned how to lie nicely," laughs Dorman. "If they don't like something, they don't like it." So after the workshop, Dorman ramped it up.
The concert was one of several given last week for a total of nearly 7,000 fourth- and fifth-graders. The symphony's Jane Kenworthy says they chose this age group for a reason.
"You know, by the time the kids are in sixth or seventh grade, many of them are already being recruited by gangs," she observes. "So it's our chance to say something to these young people, that there is another way of dealing with conflict."
Dorman's music can be challenging at times for any age, but 11-year-old Caroline Burke-Baker got the message. "Parts of it were like, really, really heavy. It felt heavy on us and stuff," she says. "And it showed us that sometimes you may fight over something that you shouldn't even be fighting about."
The symphony co-sponsored art and writing contests with the local newspaper and museum addressing themes of conflict and resolution. And it held forums, such as one that took place at the Mexican Heritage Center in downtown Stockton. After a short presentation by Dorman, audience members talked about what walls they believe need to come down. High-school teacher Consuelo Martinez says one of the highest walls is actually a street: Harding Way runs through the center of town, dividing the impoverished south from the more affluent north.
"They always told us when we were growing up in south Stockton, 'Don't go past north of Harding Way because that's not where our world is. We live in the south,'" reflected Martinez. "And so of course, some walls have come down. A lot of us live in north Stockton now, but yeah, we still have walls. There's still people afraid to be here tonight, that wouldn't come here tonight because of where we're situated. But I think the more people find out about it and if they interact, I think that the walls come down."
Even further south of downtown at another symphony-sponsored forum, Rev. Dwight Williams of the New Bethel Baptist Church struck a similar note: "There's maybe some walls gonna have to be forced down because we're all in the same boat together right now," he declared. "And everybody's gonna get swatted regardless of where you are east, west, north or south."
In spite of the city's economic problems and threat of bankruptcy, the Stockton Symphony's most powerful platform is music: it offered free tickets to anyone who attended the forums. And composer Avner Dorman hopes young listeners will hear what he has to say.
"There's a saying in Hebrew," says Dorman, "that if you save one soul, it's like you save the entire world. If one child ... has the opportunity to join a gang because they fought with someone and that's their way to get back at them, and they somehow remember this and decide not to do that, I think we've done something great."