The highly acclaimed documentary "Landfill Harmonic" follows the story of a Paraguayan music school that teaches its students to play music using instruments made from pieces of discarded rubbish. Video provided by AFP
Calling El Paso Youth Symphony Orchestra maestro Phillip Gabriel Garcia passionate about music would be an understatement.
During rehearsals for its Electric Rock Orchestra’s upcoming tour of California, Garcia directs the roughly 30-piece ensemble through the ’80s classics “Come On Eileen,” by Dexys Midnight Runners, “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” by The Scorpions, and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons.” He plays along on piano, sings and flails his long hair around like a man possessed by the sounds being played back at him.
The orchestra’s tour includes performances at Disney California Adventure Park, Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, SeaWorld and Knott’s Berry Farm from Saturday through June 26. The tour kicked off Thursday with a performance at Shawver Park in the Lower Valley. The orchestra also will perform July 22 after the El Paso Chihuahuas game at Southwest University Park.
The Electric Rock Orchestra features El Paso Youth Symphony Orchestra members playing alongside adult rock musicians from El Paso.
Garcia said he first became passionate about music through his teacher and mentor, Abraham Chavez.
“It was through Abraham Chavez that I met my wife and we’ve been trying to carry on his tradition,” Garcia said. “He was a family friend and I was enamored by him as a kid. I loved that he was such a great musician. When I was a kid, I would go to my grandfather’s house. My grandfather and Abraham Chavez were best men at each other’s weddings; they were very close. At Christmastime, (Chavez) would be playing the piano, playing the violin, and I said, ‘Oh my God, this guy is the life of the party.’ I wanted to be like that.”
Chavez was a renowned, longtime conductor of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra and professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. He died in 2000.
Garcia’s wife, Irene, also was a student of Chavez’s and is the orchestra’s co-director.
“This is his life,” Irene Garcia said. “He loves doing this; he’s been doing it for 25 years.”
Garcia founded the orchestra in 1993 at the age of 17 while he was still a student at Hanks High.
Since then, the group has gone on 10 tours, performed with Beatles tribute bands, performed in Washington, D.C., and embarked on a tour that included then-Mayor John Cook and several City Council members.
That tour featured the El Paso Youth Symphony and 270 students from a Juárez youth symphony. Juárez’s mayor and its City Council also went along for the ride.
But the pinnacle, Garcia said, was taking the group to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York last year. The tour was part of the group’s America United tour.
“I’ve heard stories about (Carnegie Hall), dreamed about it as a kid,” Garcia said. “When you finally step onto that stage, you walk into this air; you can feel history all around you. Even the seasoned musicians that were with us, their eyes lit up.”
El Paso Youth Symphony Orchestra conductor Phillip Gabriel Garcia leads rehearsals for the group’s upcoming Dare to Dream tour June 10 at El Paso Community College’s Valle Verde campus.
Garcia said that audiences and organizers at the esteemed concert hall were so impressed that the El Paso Youth Symphony was almost immediately asked to return in 2018. It’s an offer Garcia gladly accepted.
The El Paso Youth Symphony performs a variety of styles of music, from classical to pop. Membership, which costs $20 per rehearsal, is open to any musician who wants to join, with no audition.
“When a student comes to our orchestra, they’re auditioning us,” Garcia said. “They want to see if we’re good enough for them and if it fits them.”
Monica Guardado’s son, Ivan, joined the orchestra two years ago. Her daughter, Paloma, followed in her brother’s footsteps the next year. Ivan plays violin, while Paloma plays viola.
“Going to Carnegie Hall was incredible for my son,” Guardado said. “In fact, when he found out he was going to New York, he started to practice three hours every day. It was a great experience. It gave him a lot of discipline and being a member of this orchestra has helped him a lot.”
Guardado said that her children’s music education has been important to their development.
“Before they would spend all their time playing X-Box and since, they just practice,” Guardado said. “It’s helped him become more motivated in school, as well.”
After 25 years at the helm, Garcia said, he is looking for a new conductor for the orchestra so that he can focus on fundraising and his family.
“All the tours and being on your feet, it takes its toll,” Garcia said. “These tours, they’re an homage to my parents. Every summer they would take us to Disneyland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, San Diego Zoo, Knott’s Berry Farm; one after the other.”
What makes the Garcias the proudest is seeing El Paso Youth Symphony alumni go on to become musicians and music teachers themselves.
Garcia said that the 25 years have passed “in the blink of an eye.” Along the way, the group has been recognized by the city of El Paso, the city of San Diego, the Texas Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
“When I was 17 I remember lying down on the driveway at my parents’ house and looking up to the stars and saying, ‘God, help me become a conductor one day,’ ” Garcia said. “I wanted to make music, and he made me one. It wasn’t the kind I was looking to be: I wanted to be a world-class conductor and have everything given to me. It’s been 25 years of hard work, blood, sweat and tears and perseverance. We’ve been lucky. It’s like the Rolling Stones say, ‘You don’t get what you want, you get what we need.’ We’ve gotten everything we need to be successful.”
Dave Acosta may be reached at 546-6138; firstname.lastname@example.org; @Chuy_Vuitton on Twitter.