The 61st annual Stairway to the Stars, one of the most popular and longest running musical events in the city, kicks off tonight, putting the spotlight on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s music students, teachers and curriculum.

This year, 26 bands, orchestras and choirs will dazzle the audience at the Santa Monica Civic Center for two nights. The first performance begins tonight at 7 p.m. A second performance will be held Friday at 7 p.m.

Performers will be led by guest conductor Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, who chairs the USC Thornton School of Music where he conducts the USC Chamber Singers, teachers choral conducting and choral methods and supervises the graduate and undergraduate choral program.

Scheibe’s artistic collaborations include choral performances with Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Kenny Loggins.

The 2010 Stairway Honor Award recipient is Jeff Leibow, who grew up in the SMMUSD and was a product of the district’s music program. A master of the oboe, Leibow participated in a number of All-Southern and All-State honor bands and orchestras, including earning the principal oboe position in the All-California Honor Orchestra. He attended UC Davis after graduating from Santa Monica High School in 1988. He earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology. He has become a professional theater actor and currently works in the high-tech industry.

This year’s concerts will feature the All-District elementary honor string orchestra, choir and band; high school jazz ensemble; as well as the middle and high school orchestras, choirs and bands. Some of the musical selections will include: choral — “Domine, Ad Adjuvandum Me Festina”; band — “La Mezquita de Cordoba”; orchestra — “Danzon No. 2”; and jazz — “Latin Dance.”

Tickets can be purchased at the box office on the night of the performance. Box office opens at 5:30 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $14.

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