National Park Service photo by Al Golub

Acclaimed actor turns to music, makes Mariposa smallest town with symphony orchestra

By MARISA MATA, Student Writer

Last summer the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra, founded and conducted by Les Marsden (1978), played the Our Nation’s Nature Tour, which went through five counties and had a finale show at Glacier Point in Yosemite to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. When Marsden started the orchestra in 2002, he was hoping to get 10 musicians together to form a small chamber orchestra, but the group quickly grew from 10 to 45 and now has over 60 members, making Mariposa the smallest town in America with a symphony orchestra.

Marsden began studying music at four years old, after he began playing tunes by ear. While Marsden’s love for music developed, so did his love for theatre, and at four years old Marsden began to dream of growing up to be an actor. When Marsden began taking classes at Fresno State (during his senior year of high school) he had to decide between music and theatre.

Marsden said, “I thought, ‘I’m going to go for theatre, because it looks like a bigger challenge.’ And at 22 I was acting, making money doing the things I always thought I wanted to do.”

Photo by Zoe Dominic of Marsden as Harpo Marx

In 1979 Marsden’s one-man show, A Night at Harpo’s, premiered. Marsden went on to perform the show throughout California, Las Vegas and at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. After becoming acquainted with actor Groucho Marx, Marsden performed in Groucho: A Life in Review, in the dual role of Harpo and Chico Marx, written specifically for Marsden by Groucho’s son. The show was highly successful in New York and London in the 1980s.

“I performed at London’s West End, which is equivalent to Broadway, and there are not many American actors there…I was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award, the highest [theatrical] acting award in the world.”

As Marsden’s acting career continued, he performed in many works throughout North America and Europe, and worked with big name actors including Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Bates and Burt Reynolds. But in 1999, when Marsden seemed to be at the height of his career, he suffered an injury during a performance that would leave him without a fully functioning ankle.

“I was known for very physical acting, and I couldn’t act anymore. I retired at 42 and my identity was gone, because I was Les Marsden, the actor, and all of a sudden I was just Les Marsden…But I was able to reinvent myself by going back to my first love of music.”

Marsden and wife, Diane, on their wedding day in Yosemite, 1985

In 2001 Marsden moved with his wife (who he met at Fresno State) and son from the East coast back to California, near Yosemite, which Marsden has described as “the most spectacular place on the face of the planet.”

Shortly after moving back, Marsden joined the Mariposa Arts Council and was quickly made a board member. In this role, Marsden created the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra plays classical pieces and pieces written by Marsden, specifically for the Our Nation’s Nature Tour that celebrated four anniversaries of Yosemite National Park between 2014 and 2016.

National Park Service Photos by Al Golub

Marsden’s symphony is composed of four pieces and is approximately 90 minutes long. It was influenced by the history of the Yosemite Grant Act, Ansel Adams and John Muir, the sights and sounds of Yosemite and composers that Marsden admires.

“There are a lot of composers that influence me…but there’s one thing that puts them all in common: they’re all composers that have been able to touch the human heart. Tchaikovsky is from Russia, and he speaks to us half way around the world, 150 years later. Those are the composers I want to emulate.”

The orchestra now plays in Yosemite annually, and will play this year at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel on April 30th.

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