“Eleven years ago was magical.”
LOS ANGELES – In the late summer of 2009, during an August backyard birthday celebration, a group of twenty-four teenage orchestral musicians begged their conductor to please make the experience of that summer last- forever if possible, but to please keep the orchestra and its music going. What made that such an inimitable moment for those in attendance was that all of those young people were growing up in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles, and were- like their conductor, Black.
Dominic Calhoun was one of those young people that summer day. A student at Hamilton High School in Central Downtown LA that year, he remembered the excitement that had been generated by being able to perform classical music in recitals that for the first time showcased music he loved and able to publicly play his beloved violin. “Chuck made it a different vibe,” Calhoun said. “It was so different than orchestral practise and performances at school,” he added, then paused and reflected, “eleven years ago was magical.”
‘Chuck’ is Charles Dickerson, the Director of Special Ensembles at California State University, Dominguez Hills, but the title he tells the Blade that he is the most honoured to possess and which is beloved by his young orchestral musicians, is as the Executive Director and Conductor, of the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. (ICYOLA)
Calhoun told the Blade this week that more than the mentoring and the empathetic teaching, arranging, and guiding that Dickerson gave his young charges, it was the fact that as a young gay Black youth trying to figure things out, Dickerson was a critical part of his life. “Chuck really was a father figure especially after my parents divorced in 2006 and my mom and I moved from Koreatown to Central Downtown-she was a single parent, he helped me. He was accepting and even gave me advice.”
Now in his twenties and busy working as a Health Educator and Technical Assistant for the Los Angeles County Department of Health assisting the LA Unified School District as it prepares to return to in-person in-classroom instruction, Calhoun is still actively part of the ICYOLA, playing ‘Second Chair Violin’ as hehelps mentor others in the orchestra the same way he was.
“Chuck gave me the opportunity to be myself, as a young Black queer person, as a musician- he gave me- all of us that safe space we needed,” Calhoun said.
For Calhoun, his fellow orchestral members, for Dickerson, the news by the Disney Company this week that its live-action team is in early development on a movie for the Disney+ channel about ICYOLA is, as Calhoun jokes, “a true Disney moment.”
Hollywood screenwriter Bobby Smith Jr. known for his 1994 film Jason’s Lyric, a story dealing with misunderstood young black adults learning how to deal with love and maturity, will be the principal screenplay author and the film’s executive producer.
“Chuck made us all feel empowered- we were a part of something special,” Calhoun said. “Every young person, regardless whether they were Black, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ, didn’t matter,” he tells the Blade. “Chuck gave us that safe space to be ourselves. I mean there weren’t many options at our schools- well save for football, basketball you know, But he gave us that opportunity.”
Asked about Disney’s interest in making a film telling their stories, Calhoun reflected, “Makes me feel amazing that my Black Life matters enough to have Disney tell the world about it.”
Dickerson is pleasantly shocked but grateful that Disney is going to tell the story of his amazing young people. For the past eleven years, save for this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, he and his young charges have put on eight to ten concerts and recitals per year with the highlight performance always being the season finale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
“I am so honoured,” he tells the Blade. “There are now 111 young people on stage performing the very best in classical orchestral music. They are unique- the only youth orchestra completely composed of 75% Black, 20% Latino, and 5% other minorities in the entire United States.” He added that the young people are not required to audition to join and he welcomes all.
Dickerson noted that financial support comes from the community and some foundations and that ICYOLA never has a fee or burdens its members.
Dickerson said that he feels blessed and grateful to “showcase the very best of our community.”