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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally this hour, the city of Stockton, California has made national and even international new for all the wrong reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS NEWS BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: This is the 56th homicide of the year here in Stockton. That, unfortunately, sets a new city record.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: In Stockton, a greater proportion of people face the loss of their homes through foreclosure or repossession than anywhere else in America.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: This is Stockton, California. It's number two on the Forbes list of the most miserable cities in the United States.

BLOCK: And now, Stockton is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Against this endless string of bad news, one of the city's prized institutions is trying to address Stockton's problems.

Tomorrow, the Stockton Symphony will premiere a piece commissioned from the noted Israeli composer Avner Dorman. Paul Conley, of Capital Public Radio, explains.

PAUL CONLEY, BYLINE: Ask the Stockton Symphony's executive director, Jane Kenworthy, about what role the symphony orchestra plays in modern society, and she has a quick response.

JANE KENWORTHY: Our orchestras need to be embedded in the community and not sitting above it, behind the concert hall doors.

CONLEY: So Kenworthy and the Stockton Symphony commissioned a work from Israeli composer Avner Dorman to address the city's longstanding cultural and racial divides.

KENWORTHY: He got it right away. You know, Avner's from Israel. My God, if there was ever a place where they're dealing with daily conflict and people who don't talk to each other, Israel's the place.

CONLEY: Dorman, whose works have been performed by major orchestras around the world, proposed writing a narrated piece for children based on a popular Israeli fairy tale called "Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu."

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Far, far away, beyond the mountain, in the village of Kakaruzu, by the fountain...

CONLEY: It's the story of two brothers driven apart by a silly argument. They erect a wall between them, down the middle of their house. Their descendents come to believe monsters live on the other sides. Generations later, a curious boy climbs the wall - only to discover there are no monsters, just another family like his.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE)

UNIDENTIED NARRATOR: But – what's that? What's running over there? It's a - girl?

CONLEY: Dorman asked the author, Efraim Sidon, what his story was about.

AVNER DORMAN: And it was very interesting for me that he was like, you know, this story is about every family in the world. It's also about big politics. It's also about wars. Like, it leads to that. But, you know, you don't have to go far to find yourself in this story.

CONLEY: In November, Dorman came to Stockton for the first of two residencies. He visited several schools to test out samples of his work-in- progress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL PRESENTATION)

DORMAN: That's what the wall is all about. It defends us and keeps people out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DORMAN: DORMAN: Woe to you, he then finished, and said, into the other side, you will ...

CONLEY: The fourth-graders at Julia Morgan Elementary proved to be a tough audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL PRESENTATION)

DORMAN: Was that scary?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: No.

DORMAN: No? Aw.

They have not learned how to lie nicely, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DORMAN: DORMAN: They're like, you know, if they don't like something, they don't like it.

CONLEY: So after the workshop, Dorman ramped it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL PRESENTATION)

DORMAN: To make it short, he's a man in the shape of a beast!

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DORMAN: DORMAN: And that's what this wall is all about. It defends us, keeps that mean neighbor out.

CONLEY: This concert was one of several given last week for a total of nearly 7,000 fourth- and fifth-graders. The symphony's Jane Kenworthy says they chose this age group for a reason.

KENWORTHY: You know, by the time the kids are in sixth and the seventh grade, many of them are already being recruited by gangs. So it's our chance to say something to these young people, that there is another way of dealing with conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "UZU AND MUZU FROM KAKARUZU")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CONLEY: Dorman's music can be challenging at times for any age, but 11-year-old Caroline Burke-Baker got the message.

CAROLINE BURKE-BAKER: Parts of it were like, really, really heavy. And it showed us that sometimes, you may, like, fight over something that you shouldn't even be fighting about.

CONLEY: The symphony co-sponsored art and writing contests with the local newspaper and museum, addressing the theme of conflict and resolution. And it held forums like this one, at the Mexican Heritage Center in downtown Stockton.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESENTATION)

DORMAN: Yeah. It's been a great ride so far, premiering this new piece here with the Stockton Symphony.

CONLEY: After a short presentation by Dorman, audience members talked about what walls they believe need to come down.

CONSUELO MARTINEZ: They always told us, when we were growing up in south Stockton, don't go past north of Harding Way because, you know, that's not where our world is.

CONLEY: High school teacher Consuelo Martinez says one of the highest walls is actually a street. Harding Way runs through the center of town, dividing the impoverished south with the more affluent north.

MARTINEZ: There's still people afraid to be here tonight because of where we're situated.

CONLEY: The Stockton Symphony offered free tickets to anyone who attended the forums, and composer Avner Dorman hopes young listeners will hear what he has to say.

DORMAN: There's a saying in Hebrew that says: If you save one soul, it's like you saved the entire world. If one child - when they are like, 14 or 15 - they have the opportunity to join a gang because they fought with someone, and that's their way to get back at them - or something like that, and they somehow remember this and decide not to do that, I think we've done something great.

CONLEY: For NPR News, I'm Paul Conley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "UZU AND MUZU FROM KAKARUZU")

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