Orange County Music & Dance finds a perfect partner in Steinway & Sons

Steinway CEO Ron Losby and OCMD CEO Douglas Freeman

IRVINE, CA. – An innovative nonprofit performing arts school experiencing phenomenal growth is partnering with Steinway & Sons to create world-class opportunities for piano students from China. Orange County Music & Dance (OCMD) will host the inaugural Steinway International Piano Preparatory Academy from July 21st to August 17th, 2019 with two specialized sessions:

Session I, the Performance Intensive Program, is designed for students 10 to 18 pursuing professional concert careers. Renowned artists and teachers Ben Pasternak, Fabio Bidini and Kevin Kenner will offer a mix of master classes, lessons and coaching. There will be ample performance opportunities including a chance to play a movement from a Mozart concerto with the Pacific Symphony Chamber Orchestra under Maestro Carl St. Clair, or appear with Orchestra Santa Monica led by Conductor Roger Kalia.

Session II, the College Preparatory Program, focuses on students 14 to 17 aspiring to study at prestigious American universities and music conservatories. Artistic Director David Dunford, who holds a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music, leads a powerhouse of instructors expected to include Antoinette Perry, Lorna Griffit and Nina Skolnik. The program combines master classes, lessons and music theory classes with an emphasis on stage presence, conversational English and American culture. Students will tour a choice group of universities and conservatories on both coasts, meet with admissions officers and get a chance to mingle with older students and faculty.

The joint venture represents a significant development for the school, which opened its doors in January 2017. “Orange County Music & Dance offer an outstanding venue for this exciting initiative,” said Steinway CEO Ron Losby. “We look forward to contributing our 165-year tradition of excellence to advance its timeless mission of creating a new generation of remarkable piano artists and teachers.”

“We are a young school, but committed to nurture, inspire and empower every child to follow their dream regardless of financial circumstances,” said CEO Douglas Freeman, who came out of retirement from a distinguished career in law, business and finance to launch OCMD. “We have a beautiful new facility with exceptional teachers and wanted nothing but the best possible instruments for the study of music. That is why we desired to associate with an iconic worldwide leader in the piano industry to help tell our story.”

The school’s fascinating genesis captivated decision makers at Steinway.

As former board chairman and veteran director of the Pacific Symphony, Freeman got together in 2016 with legendary Chinese entrepreneur Charlie Zhang, who stepped up to address the long-time need for a community music school in Orange County.

Zhang told Freeman he dreamed of helping children pursue their musical passions – something he thought about doing after emigrating from Shanghai in 1980. Escaping the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, he came to America with $20 and a plan to study clarinet. Short on cash, he started working at a Chinese restaurant but injured his hand just a few days into the job. That injury ended his aspirations of becoming a professional musician. What happened next was epic. 

He kept working and saved $7,200 to buy his own restaurant. Over the next decade, he accumulated a chain of 100 Pick-Up-Stix eateries which he sold in 2001 for $50 million. Now Zhang heads Zion Enterprises, a real estate and investment firm based in Laguna Niguel.

He purchased two buildings on Fitch Avenue in Irvine – one for the school and another to house administrative quarters for the Pacific Symphony. “I could see Charlie was creating a premier facility for quality music and dance education that would take economic barriers off the table. He wanted to say ‘thank you’ to this country and do something for children that he couldn’t do when he was young because he lacked money,” Freeman said. “It became clear to me that my retirement was a bit premature. I had to do this.”

Zhang delivered as promised with first-class amenities including a 150-seat black box theater, eight music rooms, two classrooms, three dance studios, a recording studio and café.  The school that started with nothing now has 65 dedicated instructors and 400 enrolled students, about 200 on economically-based scholarships. Keeping with OCMD’s mission, no child is turned away because of financial hardship. Scholarships can reach as high as 90 percent of tuition and cost of instruments, but Freeman stressed that every family must provide some personal investment to ensure their commitment and to better appreciate the value of their child’s education.

“Charlie bought a new Steinway B and we were gifted a 1917 Steinway O, but the rest were used pianos. It soon became obvious that we needed all new pianos by Steinway & Sons,” he said. Working with Gordon McNelly, showroom manager of Fields Pianos in Santa Ana, OCMD replenished its inventory with a new Steinway Model A grand piano and a dozen Steinway-designed Boston UP-118S Performance Edition uprights.

The impact from the new instruments was immediate and emotional, according to Freeman. “One talented and passionate 12-year-old scholarship student walked into the music room with her parents, expecting to play an old upright. When she found herself sitting down to the new Model A, our security cameras showed her putting her head down softly on the keys as she started crying, I assume,  pure tears of joy. Then her parents started crying, too.”

The scene spoke volumes about Charlie Zhang’s dream.

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