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Joan Steinbrenner, Yankees bring Christmas cheer and the arts to children

Joan Steinbrenner wasn’t about to let a little pain in her hands keep her from doling out New York Yankee gift bags to 1,200 eager children Tuesday.

“I love it,” she said, as each kid reached for and received the dark blue bags stuffed with Yankee gear and school necessities. “I’m getting old, though. I’ll be 80 next year.”

She continued the tradition started by her late husband, George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees and one of Tampa’s favorite sons who died in 2010. For each of the past 26 years, the family has sponsored the free concert for underprivileged and at-risk children of the Tampa Bay region, featuring the Florida Orchestra and the Ballet Theater International.

This year, the concerts take place over three days, the first of which was Tuesday morning in Ferguson Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

In all, about 5,400 third, fourth and fifth graders from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties will be treated to music and fun, said Howard Grosswirth, vice president of marketing for the Yankees.

“It’s all about what Mr. Steinbrenner started 26 years ago,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for kids who have never seen a symphony orchestra and may never see one again.”

The attentive, well-mannered audience was made up of elementary school children, most of whom were in a big theater listening to symphony music and watching ballet for the first time.

“I liked the instruments,” said Ladarius Mobley, 12, who attends Jackson Elementary School in Plant City, “and the way they make music.”

Preston Grace, 9, from Thonotosassa Elementary, also liked the music and instruments. “I thought it was great,” he said as he walked with a group of students away from the concert hall around noon, Yankees bag under his arm.

John Wilson, the recently retired anchor for WTVT Channel 13, was the master of ceremonies and gave a short tutorial on the orchestra, introducing the different sections — the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion — and how they work together to make symphonic music under the direction of guest conductor Robert Romanski.

The Steinbrenners and Yankees “brought us together for a concert just for you,” Wilson told the hushed and eager faces peering up from the orchestra seats and down from the mezzanine and the balcony. “This is your concert.”

A medley of Christmas songs was followed selections from “The Nutcracker,” played as ballet dancers soared and twirled across the stage.

yankees pitcher Bryan Mitchell read “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and urged the children “to find something you are passionate about” in their lives and follow it.

The Steinbrenner Family Children’s Holiday Concerts by the Florida Orchestra with performances by the Ballet Theater International will be offered for Pinellas County school kids on Dec. 17 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and again on Dec. 18 at the Progress Energy Center for the Arts, Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

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