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Tattooed, Mexican-American and female: Classical maestra keeps symphony in tune
Among more than 20 of the major U.S. symphony orchestras, only one woman has the top job of principal conductor. But women are making better gains in the nation’s smaller ensembles. Jessica Bejarano is leading the San Francisco Civic Symphony, as well as the path for other women like her trying to reconfigure gender roles. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Elgart Jennings reports. This is part of an ongoing series of reports called “Chasing the Dream,” which reports on poverty and opportunity in America, and is supported in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: It's the first rehearsal of the season for San Francisco's Civic Symphony.
The all-volunteer orchestra is composed of some ninety amateur musicians - ranging in age from 18 to 80.
JESSICA BEJARANO: Some of them are retired, some of them are students, a lot of professionals, either the tech industry, in the arts, business owners, lawyers, doctors, you name it.
JESSICA BEJARANO: Heavy on the accents, please...
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: At the helm is thirty-eight-year-old Jessica Bejarano, she's not your typical classical music conductor.
JESSICA BEJARANO: Being that I grew up in a poverty stricken city of Los Angeles, predominantly Hispanic, classical music wasn't a thing. It was not a thing. So it wasn't part of the public school education, it wasn't part of my family tradition, it wasn't part of, you know, parties that we would go to; we wouldn't go to the symphony hall. Like, that wasn't a thing.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The Mexican American conductor was raised by a single mother in a tough section of East Los Angeles.
JESSICA BEJARANO: She worked three different jobs and raised, you know, my brother and my little sister. and she did the best that she could to give us the best life that she could. Um, I clearly remember, you know, when it was a trash night, my mother and my aunt would literally walk around the city and collect cans and bottles to recycle them. They would collect, you know, broken appliances that they would fix and sell at a yard sale or a swap meet. And I remember at that point feeling very ashamed and embarrassed that my mother was a trash digger.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: While her mother worked hard to keep food on the table, at 10 years old, Bejarano developed an interest in music.
JESSICA BEJARANO: It kept me engaged in school. It kept me looking forward to the next day where I can pull out the trumpet out of the case and play in the band.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: You've said that music saved your life. I mean, was it that dramatic?
JESSICA BEJARANO: I would say it was very dramatic// because, you know, unfortunately kids get arrested, kids are murdered, kids are imprisoned, kids get pregnant, you know. And so I defied all those odds. I didn't become any of those statistics because music was always there to keep me on a straight path.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Bejarano played trumpet in her high school's marching band, but she wasn't exposed to classical music until she enrolled in an orchestral class at Pasadena City College.
JESSICA BEJARANO: So I'm sitting there playing the trumpet in the orchestra and just playing this repertoire and hearing the music around me. It was just like, oh my God, what is this? What is this!? I was instantly drawn to the music, to the ensemble, to the setting, to the whole experience of it.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Bejarano decided she wanted to be a conductor and a music educator. She was awarded a scholarship at the University of Wyoming and earned a master's degree at U.C. David. But despite her achievements, Bejarano wasn't always taken seriously.
JESSICA BEJARANO: I remember at one point, um, I was asked if I was serious about being a conductor and I said, yeah, absolutely - and the teacher proceeded to say, maybe you should go back to your country because it's not going to happen in mine. And uh, I was told that the lesson was done and I was asked to leave the office and I remember leaving confused more than anything. I wasn't upset, I wasn't angry, I wasn't sad. I didn't cry. Like I was just like in a daze of like, did that just happen?
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Did it make you more determined?
JESSICA BEJARANO: Oh - of course. I allowed every experience to teach me something, Every time I was told, NO, you can't be a director or NO, not going to happen here - even further into, you know, my dreams becoming a reality.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: In a field dominated by men, Bejarano dreams of eventually leading one of the nation's largest orchestras.
In 2007, Marin also was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, making her the first woman to hold such a position.
JESSICA BEJARANO: And since then she's still the only woman that is music director of a tier one orchestra. And I just don't understand why it's been so difficult for women and I'm hoping that it will change as time unfolds.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: When she's not conducting, Bejarano can be found teaching music at University High School in San Francisco.
Woven into her lessons are stories about the composers whose music her students are playing.
Take for example Tchaikovsky.
JESSICA BEJARANO: The story of this man and what he went through in Russia, and him being a gay man who was ultimately murdered for, for, being himself, I mean, what a tragic story that this man went through. And his only vehicle of expression, his only way of loving was through his music. And when you listened to his music, you feel it, you hear it.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: For Bejarano, some compositions are deeply personal, like Beethoven's Piano Concerto #5.
I would listen to the 2nd movement of the Beethoven piano concerto every morning - and it was like a source of inspiration for me. It would motivate me. It was like my musical Wheaties, you know. And it helped me transition. For me, that piece also saved my life.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: How so?
JESSICA BEJARANO: It gave me peace. It gave me inner beauty and it would give me momentum for the day.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: And so, when Bejarano's mother fell ill in 2012, it felt natural to play it for her.
JESSICA BEJARANO: I remember I played that movement for her before she passed away thinking that because it saved my life, it would save her life -- and I played it for her and it didn't save her life. And so, I was mad at music after that
JESSICA BEJARANO: Um, so now as, as an adult, you know, looking back at what my mom did, the sacrifices that she made to give us life, um, to give us a fighting chance. What a woman, what a woman!
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: It took a year for Bejarano to return to her music.
JESSICA BEJARANO: And I got back into the swing of my life with even more momentum and even more thirst.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: This past October, for the first time since her mother's death, Bejarano brought Beethoven's Piano Concerto #5 to the stage.
JESSICA BEJARANO: The fact of us putting it together on stage is a pretty big deal for me. Like I am back in music and I'm good. I'm ready.