Members of Santa Monica High School’s orchestra were scheduled to convene on campus Tuesday for their final rehearsal before a spring-break trip to Europe.
But what was supposed to be an exciting tune-up became a somber, emotional meeting as students absorbed the news of the terrorist attacks that rocked Belgium earlier that day.
As people around the world mourned following bombings in Brussels that left at least 30 people dead and scores more injured, the orchestra’s anticipated journey abroad was canceled due to safety concerns.
The trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands was nixed following discussions between orchestra director Joni Swenson, Samohi principal Eva Mayoral and Santa Monica-Malibu school district Superintendent Sandra Lyon.
“It’s been really heartbreaking for the students,” Swenson said. “The kids are devastated. But what they were experiencing doesn’t compare to the tragedies that were happening in Belgium at the time. To the credit of the kids, they understood that.”
In an email to local Board of Education members and other district officials Tuesday morning, Lyon said the district had been monitoring safety issues in Europe since the November terrorist attacks in Paris.
She and Mayoral explained their decision to cancel the trip in a letter to orchestra students and parents Tuesday.
“We understand that some will be frustrated, disappointed, and perhaps even angry at this decision, and we understand,” the letter reads. “However, we cannot in good conscience go forward with this trip knowing the concern being raised in France and Belgium right now over safety and security. It is just too precarious a situation.”
Swenson was preparing to lead a group of 83 students, 11 parent chaperones and a few educators on a 10-day trip whose itinerary included stops in Paris, Bruges and Amsterdam. The orchestra was slated to perform March 26 at Salle Gaveau, an historic concert hall in the French capital. The musicians were then slated to stop in Belgium on their way to Amsterdam, where they had planned a March 28 performance at the world-renowned Royal Concertgebouw.
“That opportunity is once-in-a-lifetime,” Swenson said. “And they’re so musically ready. They’re playing at their peak at sounding so wonderful.”
Orchestra students and parents had spent months fundraising for the trip, the cost of which was estimated at about $400,000. Swenson said officials bought travel insurance, but it was unclear Wednesday exactly how much money the group would be able to recover.
Instead of preparing for a flight to Paris, Swenson spent Wednesday reaching out to City of Santa Monica officials as she and her students attempt to organize a charity concert to support Belgian citizens.
“The really positive spin to put on something so tragic is the kids are amazing,” she said. “The kids are really learning real-world events. In some small way, they feel they can make a difference. That’s our goal right now. … If we could do our concert and make it a benefit, that would help the students feel like they can help.”