Neighborhood Music School hits 100

While the Emmy Awards were under way at downtown’s Nokia Theatre on Sept. 23, a very different — but no less emotional — celebration of the arts took place less than half an hour away in the leafy residential community of San Marino.

Approximately 50 people gathered during a Sunday night reception for Boyle Heights-based Neighborhood Music School (NMS), which has provided instruction and performance opportunities to inner-city youth for nearly a century. Hosted by NMS board secretary Janet Doud, the reception paid tribute to the school’s late president, Robert Kursinski, who died in 2011. 

NMS board president Jeff De Francisco and administrator Wendy Kikkert welled up with emotion as they described Kursinski’s contributions to the school as well as his work with the music departments at Woodrow Wilson and Taft high schools. Afterward, Kursinski’s son, Rob, who flew in from Colorado, and his grandchildren were introduced.

“He definitely instilled in me to be involved in music,” granddaughter Jenny said. “But also my love for history and books and a sense of style.”

The Neighborhood Music School, which provides East Los Angeles and area youth with free or subsidized classical music instruction, will celebrate its centennial in 2014. And it’s only fitting that the school has its origins on Mozart Street in Boyle Heights. 

When NMS opened nearly a century ago, it was in a community that included Russian and other Jewish immigrants as well as Japanese-Americans. Today, based in a Victorian house near Fourth Street and Boyle Avenue, NMS serves about 250 students, primarily Latino, offering them studios, created from converted rooms, in which to perfect their craft.

Recognizing the importance of such an institution, Barry Socher recalled his own mentors as a teen — internationally renowned sisters Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld, a concert violinist and cellist, respectively.

A violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Socher performed Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusick” with a quartet of young students from the school during the reception.

“It’s really important to help nurture these developing young talents,” said Socher, who once played for composer/conductor John Williams.

“It surprises me that politicians do not do more to protect these schools and programs from budget cuts,” said Herb Alpert, who is unaffiliated with NMS but donates annually to some 350 music programs. “The arts in general, whether it’s music, the performing arts or fine arts, it’s so important to give kids an outlet to be expressive. The arts are so core to a person’s humanity.”

One of the reception’s great unscripted moments came when the program’s hosts prompted the reluctant Maegan McConnell, who had studied under Kursinski for most of her life, to deliver an impromptu performance for the group. After much hesitation, the young soprano from Altadena, who has performed in recent productions of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” delivered a flawless aria. 

Watching proudly: her parents, Maureen McConnell, who sits on NMS’ board, and Ross McConnell, camera in hand.

“The school is absolutely wonderful!” Ross McConnell said. “None of these kids would be playing if it wasn’t for the school.”

After her performance, McConnell talked about how important institutions such as NMS are at a time when the music department is usually the first to go when schools face budgetary challenges.

“Music, the arts, they feed the imagination, which is so important to independent thinking,” she said. “Creativity helps people to think for themselves; otherwise it’s just regurgitation.”

Kursinski, who led the choir at Trinity Lutheran Church in Pasadena, where McDonnell belonged, “instilled in me discipline, which I needed,” she continued. “There were lessons he taught me that I didn’t catch up to until later in life.”

Another student who learned under Kursinski’s guidance was Celina Nishioka, 13, of Alhambra. A member of a student quartet performing at the private event, the thoughtful, articulate Japanese-American teen has been studying violin at NMS for about eight years.

“It’s been a very important part of my life,” said Nishioka, who noted that the school allows “a lot of opportunities to perform” what the students are learning. She added that the school instructs a multicultural group of musicians ranging in age from 3 or 4 through adulthood.

“Everyone gets along,” she said.

In Boyle Heights, some things never change.