By Ken Martin

If you weren’t there, you should have been. If you weren’t there, you missed what was, in this writer’s opinion, one of the classiest and most impressive shows to take place in recent Castro Valley history.

My wife, Patty, and I had the good fortune to attend the “Light the Lights” concert at Redwood Chapel last Friday night, an evening of entertainment to benefit the soon-to-be-built Castro Valley Performing Arts Center. This great event featured the performances of world-renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade accompanied by Oakland East Bay Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan. Certainly this is an impressive duo, but equally impressive were the kids from our two middle schools and the high school that made up the choirs (there were two) and the orchestra.

All of this was largely brought about by the generosity of Castro Valley residents Owen and Erma Smith. The Smiths bought, at an auction, an evening with Ms. von  Stade (pronounced vahn Shtahdeh) with Mr. Morgan as her accompanist.  To help support the Performing Arts Center, they decided to donate this fine purchase to that cause. The musicians and singers from Creekside and Canyon Middle Schools and Castro Valley High School were added and, and through the efforts of a great many good people, the “Light the Lights” concert became a reality.

Redwood Chapel is an amazing facility. Its outside appearance certainly gives no indication of its more than ample interior size. Though it’s primarily a church, it was obviously built to accommodate performances like Friday night’s concert. The acoustics were great and the padded seating was comfortable. Before arriving, I had envisioned spending the evening seated on the usual hard board church seats. Such, to my delight, was not the case. Kudos also go to Redwood Christian Church for donating this fine venue.

Patty and I had just taken our seats when we were approached by a charming lady (who turned out to be Erma Smith) and asked to do a segment on a video that was being made of the show. We consented and, if you ever see the video, we are the couple with the “deer in the headlights” look trying to make it sound like we knew what we are talking about.

We returned to our seats (next to Jim O’Connor, CVUSD Deputy School Superintendent and his wife, Sharon) as the choirs and orchestra were taking their places. This was an ensemble of approximately 170 students, all of whom looked outstanding in their mostly formal attire.

But their performance exceeded their appearance by far. Whether it was the choirs performing as individual groups or the orchestra alone or all of these combined, the sound was truly ear candy. Ms. von Stade was the icing on the already delicious cake. Castro Valley can be proud of these young people as they should be of themselves. I have heard that Castro Valley schools have an excellent music program and that was most certainly proven here.

To my minor disappointment (and that of some other attendees that I talked to), Ms. von Stade (“Flicka” to her friends) did not sing as much operatic music as I would have liked. With the exception of the Habanero (Please excuse the lack of the tilde over the “n”. Apparently my computer “No habla espanol”.) from “Carmen”, the rest of her selections were largely show tunes done variously with the choirs and the orchestra or with Mr. Morgan accompanying her on the piano.

The lack of operatic arias in no way detracted from the high quality of the program. Ms. von Stade, an Alameda resident, has an outstanding voice as attested to by her stature in the world of opera. She has performed in all the great venues of the world and is considered to be one of the great mezzo-sopranos of our time. In addition, she has a very relaxed, down-to-earth stage presence and sense of humor that was appreciated by the audience as well as by Ms. von Stade herself. This came to light when, in the middle of the song “Getting to Know You”, which she was doing with the middle school choirs, she stopped, laughed and admitted that she had momentarily forgotten the words. The students bailed her out to the amusement of the audience.

To show just how relaxed and down-to-earth she can be is the report that she was recently seen pressure-washing the driveway of her Alameda home. That comfortable, classy-casual attitude carried over into her performance.

There was a reception for the Preferred Seating ticket holders following the performance. I had hoped to meet Ms. von Stade there and get some pictures to go with this column. Unfortunately, her appearance at the reception was very brief and somewhat hurried so I did not get to do either one, so I guess that I still can’t call her “Flicka”. Erma Smith (what a fine lady) made a great effort to find her to fulfill my request but “Flicka” had left the building.

To help me out with this column, Erma offered to loan me the accompanying picture of Flicka. But the picture was at the Smith’s home, so to facilitate things, they invited us, along with several other people including Janet Steidel and Terry Liebowitz, both of whom contributed to bringing us this great show, and George Granger of the school board, to their home for a sip of champagne.

One of the highlights of an already exciting evening for us was meeting, among other people, Owen and Erma Smith. The Smiths are a charming, hospitable couple who immediately make you relax and feel like you’ve known them for a long time. Their philanthropy of donating the evening with Frederica von Stade and Michael Morgan as well as underwriting the entire evening’s program so that all the box office ticket sales receipts could go directly to the Performing Arts Center deserves prodigious appreciation from our entire community.

All in all, it was a great evening. Like I said, if you weren’t there, you should have been. Let’s hope another such opportunity comes along soon so you can be there, too.

If you want to donate to further support the Castro Valley Performing Arts Center, contributions can be sent to Music Parents Society, c/o Canyon Middle School, 19600 Cull Canyon Road, Castro Valley, CA 94552. Be sure to note that your contribution is for the Performing Arts Center so it ends up in the right fund.

Perhaps some explanation is due here. Construction of the Performing Arts Center, which will be at Castro Valley High School, will be financed by a bond issue that was voted on in a previous election. Any further contributions received will go toward myriad items, like equipment and accessories, that will make the Center an absolute first-class operation.

“CV Side Trips” is always looking for unusual interesting activities or items. Contact Ken Martin at (510) 727-9296 or