Culver City Observer -

By Sandra Coopersmith
Features Writer 



"Where words fail, music speaks." ~ Hans Christian Andersen

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra ("KCO"), a 501(c)3 non-profit, was founded five years ago by Benjamin Mitchell, its president, a clarinetist who was influenced by the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra founded in 1972 in New York, in which the musicians, not a conductor, interpret the score. He believes that "sometimes a conductor can even create an invisible barrier between the players and their audience. When each musician has an equal say in the artistic process, this brings extra energy to the process."

Only a handful of other conductorless orchestras exist throughout the world, so attending a KCO concert is a very special experience. The concerts are "pay what you can." Anyone who wants to attend is able to do so, as KCO wants to develop future audiences and engage with the entire community.

In addition to great works from the past, KCO features works by living composers at every concert. Over half of the programming is by female composers, and about a third is by composers of color.

Janet Hoult, a member of KCO, had kindly invited me to attend an event at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica on Sunday, May 5th, where six instrumental finalists would be competing for cash prizes and an opportunity to perform with KCO next season.

Hoult got involved as a host for musicians through David Voncannon, chairman of the KCO board of directors, and Elizabeth Voncannon, its chief financial officer. "I have had a violist from New York, a flutist and her service dog from Chicago and now Kasha, a bassoonist from Poland," she said. "The first two performed as members of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, and Kasha is here as a competitor."

I was curious about the application process, so Kasha (Katarzyna Zdybel-Nam) explained that she learned of the competition through Facebook, applied online and submitted a performance video.

While listening to the amazing finalists, I flashed back to an early memory from my Toronto childhood.

My immigrant mother, convinced that mastery of a musical instrument would equate to my being regarded as a person of culture, had scraped together some money for me to be taught piano. When she came to get me after the second lesson, the teacher told her she was refunding the money because I had "hands of stone, no aptitude, and it was a mutual waste of time."

For the six brilliant and internationally assembled performers, it was a very different story as their aptitude, discipline, and devotion to their craft was clearly evident from the moment they started to play. Emil Jonason (clarinet, Sweden), Katarzyna Zdybel-Nam (bassoon, Poland), Kevin Ahfat (piano, Canada), Knut Hanssen (piano, Germany), Michael Katz (cello, Israel), and Zoe Martin-Doike (viola, USA), expertly accompanied by pianists Hedy Lee and Dawoon Chung, presented enthralling performances.

They were six of the twelve finalists competing in KCO's 2019 Instrumental and Vocal Competition, which received over 1,600 applications from musicians in over 90 countries. The vocal competition took place the previous day.

$30,000 in prizes and performances with KCO next season were awarded to three vocalists: sopranos Jerica Steklasa (Slovenia), Alisa Jordheim (USA), and Axelle Fanyo (France), and three instrumentalists: Emil Jonason, Kevin Ahfat, and Zoe Martin-Doike.

Another project of KCO is Call for Scores for solo, chamber and orchestral works, and 2,300 applications from composers in over 90 countries were received. Selected composers receive roundtrip air travel to Los Angeles, housing, six rehearsals, multiple performances, and professional recordings. Although the application deadline was March 31, 2019 for the 2019-2020 season, this is something for budding Beethovens to keep in mind for the future.

KCO has premiered almost 100 pieces, and commissions have been granted to ten female and ten male composers to be premiered during 2020 ("20 for 2020"): Andy Akiho, Anna Clyne, Augusta Read Thomas, Billy Childs, Christopher Cerrone, David Hertzberg, Hannah Lash, Joel Hoffman, Julia Adolphe, Krists Auznieks, Libby Larsen, Melinda Wagner, Melissa Dunphy, Natalie Dietterich, Pamela Z, Peter Shin, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Stephen Hartke, Ted Hearne, and Will Healy.

The organization performs many free concerts in schools, hospitals, shelters, and other underserved parts of the community. In 2017 KCO started a music education program at Braddock Drive Elementary, a title I elementary school located in Culver City, providing music instruction to 200 students each week. With additional funding, KCO is planning to expand this program to other grades and other schools in the future, the goal being for children not only to love listening to music but to have the opportunity to read, play, and write music as well.

KCO has performed in venues with capacities ranging from 400 to 1,000 people.

Per Alex Granger, KCO's Development Manager, their next concert will be a ticketed event because it is being presented by St. Martin of Tours School. The Kaleidoscope musicians will be performing, with net proceeds going to the school. It will be held at St. Martin of Tours Church, 11967 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 1st. Tickets can be obtained through

I asked Granger how he got involved with KCO, and he responded that it started with the very first concert in 2014.

"I spoke with Benjamin Mitchell, the founder, on the phone, and he told me about his vision for a conductorless orchestra in LA," he said. "Besides being conductorless, another unusual feature is that the performers all play standing, with only the cellists seated."

Granger and his wife, Chiai Tajima, both play violin. "One funny story," he added, "is that in the first ever Kaleidoscope concert, I was stand partners with my wife, and we weren't even dating at the time! Now we are both on Kaleidoscope's artistic team."

He shared that KCO, which has offices at WeWork in Culver City, "recently received a $12,000 performing arts grant from the Culver City Cultural Affairs Commission to do a performance of Peter and the Wolf with English and Spanish narration this coming fall. Also, we have been performing in Santa Monica since 2014. One of our board members, Jim Wang, is the director of orchestras at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica."

Granger expressed pride that "each year we do over sixty free concerts in

underserved community venues," and emphasized that if there is one message KCO wanted the reader to take away, it's that "music is for everyone."

Because of the many intriguing designs a kaleidoscope creates, it's a perfect name for this organization, symbolizing the harmony, beauty and wonder resulting from the cultural diversity and abilities represented by the musicians. To learn more about KCO and to support its membership and sponsorship programs, please visit


Reader Comments(1)

KJoy writes:

Oh Sandra this is a fascinatI got article, the content of which just fills me with joy. What an incredible music program, doing so much for so many, I can’t believe I’ve never heard about it! Thank you for this enlightening and up-lifting story- indeed, there are many beautiful things going on in the world- we NEED to hear about them ! Well done ❤️


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