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Central California Life Magazine

Melody for the Monoliths: The Mariposa Symphony Orchestra

Mar 15, 2016 01:17PM ● By Ryan Frisch

Photos By Dan Minkler

There’s nothing quite as enchanting as the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park. Hiking along its trails, strolling through its dew-kissed meadows and peering down from its highest peaks, you are constantly reminded of what makes this place magical. The granite masterpieces of Half Dome and El Capitan. The majestic waters that flow from Yosemite Falls. The stunning wildlife that roams the park. 

Few things can calm the soul as effectively.

Except for maybe music. 

It’s the combination of both wonders that conductor Les Marsden dreamed of when he founded the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra in 2002. Now, Marsden’s orchestra carries the distinction of being the only symphony orchestra in the history of Yosemite to be allowed to play in the national park.

Wild Dream to Reality

The story of the creation of the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra is, to put it simply, awe-inspiring.

In a town with a population under 2,000, the formation of such an ensemble seemed impossible to the few residents who lived there. A symphony orchestra in Mariposa? Marsden said the first reaction to the idea was laughter. 

People thought it was a wild dream, he said. 

But not only did the musicians come and play, they played extremely well, warranting the residents of the small town speechless after one performance. Membership in the orchestra boomed following its successful debut on Dec. 21, 2002, Marsden said. By its second performance, the group couldn’t even fit on stage at Mariposa’s 369-plus-seat Fiester Auditorium. 

What began as 10 musicians is now a full-blown orchestra with more than 60 members. 

Musicians in the orchestra hail from five counties, with half coming from Mariposa County and others traveling to rehearsals from the cities of Merced, Oakhurst, Fresno, Coarsegold, Turlock and beyond. 

Famous guest soloists have included cellist Ira Lehn, violinists Ann Miller and Dr. Lewis Wong of New York, pianist Patrice Stribling Donald and trombone virtuoso Dr. Tom Ashworth of the University of Minnesota.

Perhaps its greatest accomplishment has been its relationship with Yosemite. 

Marsden said it took a lot of convincing, with literally years of polite but firm needling of his friends in both Yosemite’s administration and Delaware North, but once he finally got park officials and the park’s concessionaire to budge on the idea, it took off. The orchestra’s first performance over a decade ago was so successful, he said, that the officials saw the advantage of offering regular concerts of the MSO at the Ahwahnee Hotel on an annual basis.   

“I evangelize on the power of the arts as an economic engine,” Marsden said. “Whether you are in a large metropolitan area or in a rural area, investments, private or public, in the arts are known to boost the economy with one of the highest returns on any investment.”

He said that once the word got out about the MSO’s first concert, the Ahwahnee Dining Room was swamped with reservations. 

“The wait staff of the Ahwahnee’s dining room was extremely happy,” Marsden recalled. “After the concert, they told me it had been one of their best tip days ever.  

“That is only one small display of the economic power of the arts.” 

Growing up in Fresno, Marsden said he has always been in love with the glorious park. 

“After traveling and seeing so many other international sights through my years, it only confirmed my love for that extraordinary place,” Marsden said.  “And that’s why when I had to retire at an early age, it was something of a no-brainer that my wife Diane and I wanted to live in close proximity to Yosemite.  

“Mariposa County is the home of Yosemite, so that’s all it took.”

An Actor at Heart, a Musician for Life

Amazing as the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra is, it’s hard to believe that if it weren’t for a tragic career-ending accident Marsden may have never moved to Mariposa to found the ensemble. 

Marsden has always been gifted with musical talent. 

“The story goes that when I was three or four years old, I heard a commercial and then sat down at the piano and plucked out the tune,” Marsden said. “At that point my parents decided to get me lessons.” 

At 9, he added trumpet and other brass as well as string and wind instruments to his repertoire. By age 11, he was a credentialed piano teacher.

Marsden considered himself to be a pianist and concert grand (pedal) harpist primarily but he played trumpet well enough as a teen to be the principal player for many local ensembles, including the California Honor Orchestra and the Fresno Junior Philharmonic. 

At 13, he composed his first symphony. 

Despite his natural talent and vast experience as a musician at a young age, the profession Marsden had longed for since early childhood was acting. As a college student at Fresno State, he decided to pursue his dream to become an actor.

“There is something about the ability to express oneself through acting, to alter yourself and become a different human being,” Marsden said. “All art disciplines require the mind and the heart. You have to not only know what you’re doing in your head – the technique of any artistic discipline – but also be able to submerge yourself emotionally into it.”

Marsden also wanted a challenge. 

“My draw to theater was, seriously, the fact that it appeared to be an even tougher field in which to make one’s living than music,” he said, noting how less than 1 percent of the 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are working at any given time. 

“That and the challenge of communicating with the audience, to perhaps be able to pull them to laughter one moment and spin on a dime and have them crying the next.”

While still in college, he wrote, produced and starred in his own one-man show, “A Night at Harpo’s.” The show was booked internationally directly from college and catapulted Marsden into professional show business. 

He made a name for himself playing the dual role of Harpo and Chico Marx in Arthur Marx’s play “Groucho: A Life in Revue.” In addition to playing both brothers, Marsden stunned audiences by playing lengthy piano and harp solos in each of the brothers’ distinctive styles. The show was highly successful in New York and London, where Marsden was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award, arguably the highest stage-acting honor in the world. 

Marsden is careful to point out that playing the Marx brothers was only a sideline to his mainstream career, a career that consisted of more than 3,000 performances of works by artists as varied as Shakespeare, Cole Porter, Neil Simon and Chekov.  

In 1999, he had an onstage accident that resulted in permanent injury to his left leg. Disabled, he was no longer able to perform his trademark highly physical roles and retired from acting at 42. 

It was then that he and his wife Diane and young son Maxfield returned to California from New York and made their home in Mariposa. 

Marsden said he was retired “for all of five minutes” when he waltzed into the Mariposa County Arts Council just to chat with the executive director. He said the council immediately snatched him up and put him on the board. 

His idea to start the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra was born. 

Although he was devastated that he had to step away from the stage, Marsden said it gave him the chance to get back to his musical roots. 

“Even as an actor, there was that little voice inside my head that asked if I would be happier doing music,” Marsden said. “That’s human nature, I think, to question whether the grass is greener. 

“So that is the one good thing, what happened gave me the opportunity to indulge in a great discipline I’ve always loved and still love.” 

American Anniversaries: Playing Music for Yosemite in Yosemite

Marsden has composed numerous works for the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra during the last 13 years. The orchestra has also performed the works of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Sibelius, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and many other great composers. 

Currently, Marsden and the orchestra are receiving acclaim for premiere performances of Marsden’s new large-scale symphonic cycle “American Anniversaries,” written in celebration of the historical events that have shaped the preservation of Yosemite and other national parks. 

Three of the four pieces comprising “American Anniversaries” have made their debuts. The first is “Wildness, Our Necessary Refuge,” which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The second is “Hope in a Time of Tragedy,” commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act of 1864. The third is “Yosemite!” celebrating the 125th anniversary (which is October 1, 2015) of the national park. The fourth piece, which will commemorate next year’s centenary of the National Park Service, will premiere in the spring of 2016, completing the entire cycle. 

Marsden said few experiences compare to performing works written about a place in that very place. 

Part of “Yosemite!” was inspired by the fire falls that took place at Glacier Point from 1872 to 1969. The fire falls occurred on summer nights at 9 o’clock sharp with one rare exception. When President Kennedy was visiting and had to take an important phone call, the fire fall was delayed a half-hour so he could enjoy it. The fire fall involved two voices, one echoing from Glacier Point and another calling up from the valley below. The exchange, Marsden said, was this—“Hello Glacier Point!” “Hello Camp Curry.” “Is the fire ready?” “The fire is ready.” “Let the fire fall.” “The fire falls.”  At that point, the man atop Glacier Point would take a steel rake and push the embers of a fire off the massive monolith. 

In “Yosemite!” Marsden recreates this scene musically and he and one of the orchestral musicians voice the famous exchange.  

“There is nothing like booming out those words and conducting the entire orchestra in a massive tutti while you can actually see Glacier Point,” he said, using the Italian term that describes when the whole orchestra begins to play.  

“And next year when we perform the entire cycle in Yosemite and tour the MSO in a series of performances in the gateway counties surrounding the park, our audiences will be able to share in that experience.”

A grant was awarded to the orchestra in recognition of “American Anniversaries” and the orchestra’s economic impact on the region. The grant will help fund the orchestra’s 2016 multi-county tour of concerts presenting “American Anniversaries.” •

For more information about the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra, including its upcoming performances, go to

By Valerie Shelton

Valerie Shelton has worked as a reporter and editor for several Central Valley publications. Currently, she is the editor of the Clovis Roundup, a community newspaper covering news and events in the growing city of Clovis.