A varied group of people gather at Los Medanos College on a Wednesday night, sit in a semicircle in a recital hall and proceed to scrape horsehair over catgut while staring at undulating rows of black dots on white paper - and, oh yes, glancing every so often at the bald, bespectacled, mustachioed man in the middle of the semicircle waving a white baton in his right hand while his left hand dances along.
He is Harvey Benstein, the maestro of the Contra Costa Chamber Orchestra, which is coming up on its 30th anniversary of helping keep alive some of the greatest music ever written - music that is also mostly neglected or rejected by the masses. These acoustic warriors might be fighting a losing battle as far as transforming today's digital hip hop zeitgeist, but they make music for the joy of making music.
"For me, I play violin because I enjoy it for myself," said Kevin Eng, an Oakland lawyer. "We all come together because we want to play together, and we enjoy each other's company and the music. It's a great way to get out of our day jobs."
"It doesn't come as easy for me as some people, but it has helped me to grow," said Linda Dunn, an Antioch violist. "I love the classics. Some of the more modern compositions that are more dissonant and that kind of thing, I don't enjoy as much. But you have to grow and be educated in a variety of music. So I've learned to appreciate a wider spectrum of music."
They were speaking before the start of a strings-only rehearsal a couple weeks ago that began with a difficult rondo. It's part of a concert they'll be playing this Saturday night at LMC (and Sunday at the Regional Center for the Arts) devoted to music from England, including a piece - "Spiral" - by a real live former Beatle: Paul McCartney.
Programming a Beatle to help bring the youngsters into the audience - even if some of those youngsters are now pushing 60 - might be a smart marketing move, but don't expect to hear the second side of "Abbey Road" Saturday night.
"I said there's got to be a new piece out there that maybe some people would be interested in," said Benstein. "And growing up in the '60s, that was Beatlemania. So you're seeing that Paul McCartney is stretched out and doing some classical work. I took a look at the score and said this might be kind of interesting, because I hadn't seen it programmed around the Bay Area very often."
Sure, Paul was the cute Beatle, but how attractive is Sir McCartney as a classical composer when he's 64?
"I'll let the audience kind of decide," demurred Maestro Benstein. "This is obviously some early attempts at classical music. I think it's an effective piece and I think the audience will enjoy it. It's not 'Yesterday' or 'I Want to Hold Your Hand.' Other than the name Paul McCartney, you wouldn't necessarily know that there's a connection there. But it shows a more mature musician working on colors and texture, instead of just a tune."
It's hard to believe today, but 200 years ago the jukeboxes in Europe - had they existed - might have been playing the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. They were the Snoop Dogs of their time, as Ludacris as it might seem to many of us today.
"Music is a form of communication," said Benstein. "There's a reason why some musics have lasted for hundreds of years. I think it kind of transcends generation to generation. Each generation can relate to the music in contemporary terms. Mozart's generation related to that as probably the popular music of the day.
"Today we can relate to it in other ways. We don't have to put ourselves into an 18th century mode to appreciate the form and the creativity that was involved in Mozart or Beethoven or in Bach. Our minds can subconsciously discover the structure in the piece. It does good things to our bodies. Some music gets you excited, it makes you feel certain ways when you listen to it."
Which is not to say that the kids will be freak dancing any time soon to another piece they'll play this weekend: "Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus'" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the most melodic and accessible of 20th century composers. Also on the program are the "Simple Symphony" of Benjamin Britten and a clarinet concerto by Gerald Finzi.
The rehearsal starts with Benstein counting off "One, two, three …" and the strings tackle an astringent, agitated, high-pitched melody full of dissonance, trouble and drama.
They are cut off by the Maestro, who says, "Square one, beat four. Ba, ba, ba, bump, bump, bump," then counts them off again. A pizzicato leads to a fast, complicated whirlwind effect that they play again and again.
"How about that whole sequence again, starting 4 before 2," the man with the baton asks/commands, and then they're off again.
It's just another night at the office for Benstein, a Pittsburg resident who puts on 40 concerts a year between the various groups that he leads.
"He's a very wonderful interpreter of different textures of music," said Dunn. "He pulls out of us different moods that the music is calling for. And he uses some very unique illustrations sometimes, like word pictures, to get the kind of sound he wants and feels the passages should be interpreted.
"Of course, there's different opinions sometimes on how a passage can be interpreted, but by and large he's very positive about those kind of interpretations. I consider it a privilege to play with them."
"He is always prepared to help us through the music, which can be really tough, most of it," said Eng. "He's extremely musical and thoughtful about the music, and that's where he starts from, and he tries to bring everybody into that. We come to a middle ground where everybody has this understanding of every piece we play.
"It's a juggling act for him because he's got all these different people. Getting the different voices together to make music on a basic level, helping people through a learning process - you have to make it enjoyable, but then you also have to be tough and make people put the effort in to get it to where you want it to be for a performance. He juggles all of that really well."
Benstein was asked why he does it, what does this former clarinetist whose instrument is now a group of human beings get out of this, other than a paycheck.
"There's the thrill of live music making," he said. "I enjoy when everybody is working together and the sounds come to life and we're expressing something. You can just tell when everybody is locked in to each other.
"Our last concert we did the Mendelssohn Third Symphony - a very challenging work for the chamber orchestra. It was very technically demanding, and the orchestra worked very hard. For our performances there were some absolutely exquisite moments in the piece when they were able to capture the essence of the music and convey it to the audience.
"That's the real joy. I think that's what we do it for. It's certainly not the straightening up the chairs and worrying about the last-minute phone calls and trying to hold things together. It's when the creative process takes shape and happens."
You can hear that creative process taking shape Saturday, March 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the LMC Recital Hall, 2700 E. Leland Road in Pittsburg. Tickets, available at the door, are $8 for adults and $4 for students. The orchestra will repeat the concert at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek on Sunday, March 25 at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $12 to $15.
If you played in a high school or college orchestra, they're always looking for more musicians, especially string players. For more information, visit www.cccorch.org.