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Disney Forms Kids Orchestra

Tonight, the Disney Channel presents a TV concert of 8-to-12 year olds in their debut performance of Mozart, Beethoven, and Copland

SIXTY-FIVE pairs of eager eyes riveted their gaze on four-time Oscar winner Henry Mancini. To the young musicians, it seemed an eternity before the conductor's baton signaled the beginning of Copland's rousing "Hoedown."

Once the music started, the whole stage came alive. The musicians, aged 8 to 12, sat up straight and played their best. In the audience here at the Ambassador Auditorium were their families and friends, and even more exciting, six TV cameras with blinking red lights.

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So began the taping of the Disney Young Musicians Symphony, which airs tonight at 8 p.m. on the Disney Channel (check local listings).

If the young musicians had viewed themselves through the conductor's eyes, they would have looked into a sea of well-scrubbed faces.

None were more intent than the third violins, where 10-year-old Charles Hummel had folded a dollar bill to serve as a mute.

Then, there were 12-year-olds Kristina and Laura Wilson, identical twins, playing identical trombones. And there was 10-year-old harpist Allison Allport who confided she had to rent a harp to practice.

Violin soloist, 12-year-old Tamaki Kawa-kubo, is a seven-year veteran of the concert stage. Impeccable in her technique and delightful in her pink dress, it was hard to believe she was the same T-shirted, jeans-wearing girl who packed her "on loan" violin into its case with tender care after each rehearsal. How the orchestra started

There was still another view - this from the control booth. Here, the show's TV producer, Gail Purse, was watching. Eighteen months ago she had approached Gary Smith, half of the Emmy-winning production team of Smith-Hemion, about putting together a kids' symphony orchestra.

"We'd worked together on other shows," Ms. Purse explains. "One of the most enjoyable was Andy Williams going to the North Pole with 12 child stars searching for Santa. Smith liked working with kids, and he liked the idea of introducing classical music as fun to a young TV audience."

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It was Mr. Smith who took the idea to Michael Eisner, head of Disney. Mr. Eisner was exuberant. Two weeks earlier, he'd been talking about a Disney youth orchestra.

Eisner had one major concern: He wanted the orchestra to be young - "Kids, 8 to 12, when they are pure and eager, before they have learned to say, `I can't do that,' or `I'm afraid.'"

When Eisner gave the go-ahead, Purse enlisted her friend Edye Rugalo, executive director of the 37-year-old Young Musicians Foundation (YMF) in Los Angeles.

They had few musicians in that age bracket in the YMF Orchestra, but most are 15 to 25. Ms. Rugalo helped put together an advisory board of master teachers and conductors to scout talent.

As the TV producer continued, "We knew there weren't enough young musicians in the school system, so we had to go into the private sector. We sent out 500 applications and received 300 back. We set five days aside for the auditions. Mount St. Mary's College in the Santa Monica Mountains graciously let us hold them on campus.

"We discovered more kids played strings than brass. We selected the kids for their talent, their willingness to learn, and for their faces. Being a TV producer, I knew when I saw a freckle-faced eight-year-old, I've got to have him. That's where the music camp came in. These great conductors came to Mount St. Mary's and taught, talked, and encouraged the kids. Some youngsters even got private coaching.

"The first rehearsal at music camp made my heart sing," Purse says. "All the kids had been given the music two months before. They arrived, knowing every note." They lived in on campus for the entire week, their sole rehearsal period together.

"I discovered most of the youngsters were away from home for the first time and were a little homesick. We tried to organize fun - a scavenger hunt, swimming, and a barbecue. That treasure hunt had the kids knocking on the nuns' doors asking for everything from a nail clipper to a green toothbrush!"

Edye Rugalo got her husband, musical arranger Pete Rugalo, to help. He checked over the challenging musical program, and then arranged it so preteens could play it.

The Rugalos also signed up four-time Oscar winner John Williams of the Boston Pops, and 20-time Grammy winner Henry Mancini, both members of YMF's board, and Herb Alpert, Louie Belson, Ray Brown, and Jerry Goldsmith to do the music camp. Excitement snowballed

Purse says that all of them were helpful to the kids. "Edye Rugalo literally rolled up her sleeves helping to select costumes, checking sizes, and making them fit." She also recruited Daniel Hege, a graduate of the Young Musician Foundation's conductor-in-training program, to conduct the Disney symphony with Mr. Mancini. Hege is also associate conductor of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and conductor of the YMF Debut Orchestra.

Excitement was snowballing. John Cooke, president of the Disney Channel, suggested that they not just have a concert, but that they should film profiles of the young people and their work. "Why not," he said, "show our young viewers that music can be fun as well as satisfying?"

Conductor Williams applauds Disney. "It will be a wonderfully entertaining program, but there's the larger issue of the social contribution and good use of television," he says.

Twenty-seven-year-old conductor Hege adds, "Being in such close contact with this young orchestra, I am continually impressed. They use music as a discipline, both in practicing and in coming together. Their approach is innocent and pure. They are receptive to things at this age."

One highlight of the rehearsals was Herb Alpert's appearance. He told the kids to play whatever they wanted, as long as it was in the key of G. Then, he got out his trumpet and improvised on top of the music.

Aside from their talents, are these kids any different from their peers? Do they have the same anxieties - stage fright, for instance?

Hege responds, "Of course, they are normal kids, I try to relieve any tensions. Once I got them laughing when I told about doing a video and taking one step too far and falling backward into the orchestra pit." Hege once played in a youth orchestra himself.

Purse says, "don't think it's all rehearsals. The kids know how to communicate with each other. Some are very serious, like the 11-year-old who began practicing at 2 a.m. The nuns at St. Mary's love music but prefer it later in the day. These youngsters might have been loners and homesick when they arrived, but they left with more self-esteem and eager to continue new friendships."

After the taping and before they returned home this group of young musicians headed to ... where else? Disneyland.

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